Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary: A road paved with records

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost (U.S. poet), 1915

 During the past decade young men and women from all over the world took the road to ISIS in the Middle East. Most were Muslim, some were not; most were men, some were women; some went to Syria, some went to Iraq and other countries with ISIS affiliates. After arriving in Syria, some burned their passports.

 Now that the ISIS jihadist group is cornered in Syria, some members, captives, and people swept up in the group’s territory are fleeing and surrendering. Held in various jails and detention centers, they include children born while their mothers were with ISIS. Some detainees want to return to their native lands where their parents are anxious to see their children and grandchildren. The return, however, is controversial in the home countries, whose officials worry that these ISIS adherents may not have renounced extremism and will be a danger to national security.

 In late 2017 Iraq and Russia announced they were setting up a joint database listing Russian-speaking children “whose parents are believed to have been killed while fighting in Islamic State group ranks” and who are in “government-run children’s homes in Baghdad” in order to return them to relatives in Russia. Russia estimated there are “around 500 children” from “Russian origin or from former Soviet Union countries” in these homes. When the Iraqi government receives official documents from the Russian Embassy in Baghdad “proving that those children are from a Russian origin” the Iraqi Higher Judicial Council decides whether the child should be sent to Russia and the Immigration Department “stamps the passport.” How many of these children have been transported has not been reported.

 Unlike that situation, today’s potential returnees are adults and sometimes adults with children. According to the Washington Post, France is considering bringing home more than 100 former Islamic State fighters, with their families, while Belgium’s government is fighting a judge’s order to “repatriate six Belgian children along with their mothers, former Islamic State sympathizers who twice travelled to Syria.”  It is relatively easy for a government to determine whether a person was issued a passport, and in most countries there are birth registrations and school records and social services and census data that show citizenship. But two examples show the complications that may arise when a government considers a return.

             * Shamima Begum, born in the U.K. to Bangladeshi parents who are naturalized citizens, ran away from her home in 2015 to join ISIS. She wants to come back. In the U.K. it is only possible to strip someone of U.K. nationality if they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere “and it is thought Ms Begum could be a Bangladeshi citizen because she was born to a mother believed to be Bangladeshi,” reported BBC News. Consequently, the U.K. Home Office sent a letter to her parents, saying she was stripped of U.K. citizenship and barred from return. An immigration lawyer told the Washington Post that children of Bangladeshi parents are automatically citizens at birth but this ends at age 21 “if they do not make an effort to retain that citizenship.”  Shamima has not done so; unless she acts, in two years she could be stateless. The nationality of her infant son, whose father is Dutch, is also in question. The Guardian reported that the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service said “to live in the Netherlands with a Dutch national, a spouse or partner would need a resident permit – which would require a valid passport or other travel document,” neither of which she has.

 *If that case is not complicated enough, look at the case of Hoda Muthana. She was born in the U.S. on 28 October 1994 to Yemeni parents. Her father was a Yemeni diplomat at the United Nations, and he “surrendered his diplomatic identity” either in June 1994 before his daughter was born, making her a birthright U.S. citizen, or in February 1995, which would make her a Yemeni. After Hoda’s birth both parents got residence “green cards” and stayed in the U.S. Hoda got a U.S. passport in 2004 and a renewal in 2014, just before she went to Syria and joined ISIS where she publicly burned her passport. She now wishes to return. The U.S. government revoked her passport in January 2016 saying it had been issued in error: she was not a birthright citizen because “the US Mission to the UN’s records showed that Muthana’s father didn’t lose diplomatic status until months after Hoda was born.” A further complication: she has a small son whose father is Tunisian; it is not clear where her son is a citizen.

 Passports, birth records, green cards, naturalization records, border control records, video evidence of actions on behalf of ISIS: whichever path is chosen, it is paved with documents. And that makes all the difference.