Female sympathizers of the Islamic State campaign in support of the terrorist group in 2014. (JG Photo/Safir Makki)

Gov't in Tight Bind Over Repatriation of IS Sympathizers


NOVEMBER 19, 2019

Indonesian women who supported the Islamic State had migrated in waves to territories held by the short-lived caliphate from 2014 until its downfall in late 2017. Their repatriation now poses a major problem for the government. 

Turkey deported 430 Indonesian IS sympathizers, most of them women and children, between 2015 and 2017. 

In 2018, the Indonesian government repatriated 18 of them, once again mostly women and children. Two women successfully returned on their own from war zones in Syria this year.

From 2018 to mid-2019, more than 300 Indonesian women lived in refugee camps in Iraq and Syria, waiting for a decision from the government on their repatriation. 

This issue of repatriation has put the government in a tight bind, as the IS sympathizers are often seen as a potential security threat but yet, according to the 1945 Constitution, the government bears the responsibility of protecting all Indonesian citizens. 

Caught in a Bind 

The United Nations' 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness ensures the right of every person to a nationality. It also sets out the situations in which states can deprive a person of his or her nationality, essentially leaving him or her stateless. 

The Indonesian government recognizes the right to nationality set out by the convention. The 2012 Law on Citizenship explicitly mentions that Indonesia does not acknowledge statelessness. 

However, the same law mentions that an Indonesian citizen will lose his or her citizenship if he or she voluntarily takes an oath or declares his loyalty to a foreign country or part of that foreign country.

In some viral videos going around during the glory days of IS, some Indonesian women who had just arrived in IS-occupied territories were shown burning their Indonesian passports and then taking the baiat, or pledge of loyalty, to IS. 

Now that the caliphate they supported is doomed, they have to survive almost unlivable conditions at the Al Roj, Al Hawl and Ain Issa refugee camps in Syria and beg for a return to Indonesia.

The problem is, there has been a massive resistance inside Indonesia against repatriating these women supporters of IS, even though, as Indonesian citizens, they have the right to return home. 

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 showed 74 percent of the respondents were of the opinion that IS was a primary national security threat.

The number increased to 81 percent in a similar survey conducted a year later.

Aside from the public reaction, senior government officials have also rejected the idea of bringing these women back to Indonesia. They argued that their decision to join IS was effectively an act of treason against Indonesia. 

At the same time, the government could not ignore the miserable conditions in which these women now live. The camps where they take refuge are struggling to keep them safe since the US withdrew its troops from Syria in October.

The camps, once protected by the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by US troops, have now been the targets of violent attacks. 

Criminals or Victims?

So are these women criminals in cahoots with IS, or victims of the caliphate's propaganda?

Mia Bloom, an expert in gender and counter-terrorism, said IS used its considerable propaganda clout to mobilize women who were then used to recruit, reward and retain male foreign fighters. All the while the women remained vulnerable to manipulation. 

An Ipac report released in August this year stated the longer the women stayed inside refugee camps, the more they were exposed to violence, threats and more profound radicalism. 

What's the Government Doing?

The Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs set up a task force in July this year to find a solution for the impasse.

The team includes staff from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Defense Ministry, Law and Human Rights Ministry and Social Affairs Ministry.

The National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), National Intelligence Agency (BIN), police counterterrorism squad Detachment 88 and other related agencies are also involved in the task force. 

The team's main task is to come up with a policy to enable the government to repatriate the women under several legal frameworks: the 2011 Law on Immigration, the 2012 Law on Citizenship, the 2018 Law on Counterterrorism and the 2014 Presidential Regulation on Protection and Empowerment of Women and Children in Social Conflict. 

The government will likely implement two central policies. One, a three-phase repatriation process known as the "before border, at the border and after border" policy, and a "by request" policy. 

The first strategy involves verification and identification before repatriation to work out the women's citizenship status, followed by the repatriation process at the border and then an assessment on whether the women should be prosecuted or sent to rehabilitation centers. 

The "by request" policy means that whoever asks to be returned to Indonesia will be repatriated. This will stop potential repeat offenders from being repatriated alongside those who genuinely seek a return to Indonesia. 

The BNPT, which plays a leading role in countering violent extremism, should provide deradicalization facilities and activities specifically designed for women IS returnees and have them ready before the government starts the repatriation process.

The Women Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry should ensure that the new National Action Plan for the Protection and Empowerment of Women and Children in Social Conflict 2019–2024 also address the issue of repatriation. 

Also, government regulations that detail how the 2018 Law on Counterterrorism is enforced should include articles on countering violent extremism and terrorism specifically addressed to protecting women.

Most importantly, the government should make sure that government agencies, local governments, civil society organizations and the academia all work together to help the women's return to Indonesian society.

According to Bloom, reintegration programs spearheaded by locals have a higher success rate and lower recidivism thanks to the effectiveness of local ownership in the process.       

In the end, the issue of repatriation remains a problematic one. But one thing is clear, fear and rejection will only lead to a deeper humanitarian crisis. 

Nuri Widiastuti Veronika is a staff member of the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs. The views expressed in this article are her own.