How do we reintegrate children of Australian IS fighters?


Scott Morrison has softened his stance on allowing the children of Australian IS fighters to return home, but it’s unclear if resources will be put in place to ensure their smooth re-entry.

With the path cleared for the children of Australian IS fighters to return home, questions are now being asked about what kind of support is needed to ensure a smooth reintegration back into society after their ordeal. 

Save the Children estimates almost 7,000 children of foreign IS fighters are living in camps in north-east Syria - double what was previously reported - as international pressure ramps up on Western nations to take responsibility for their citizens.

Of these, approximately 70 are believed to be Australian children.

Women and children within a Syrian refugee camp.
Women and children within a Syrian refugee camp.

"Australia is a wealthy, developed nation and has the expertise and resources to support children’s physical and psychological recovery and reintegration into society – Syria does not," Save the Children's humanitarian director Archie Law told SBS News.

"Right now, Australian children are living in the most appalling circumstances, and their lives are at stake so this need to be an urgent priority of the Government – one which definitely cannot wait until after the election."

Khaled Sharrouf with his sons
Khaled Sharrouf with his sons.

Earlier this week it was reported that the three surviving children of Khaled Sharrouf - Australia’s most infamous IS fighter - will begin their journey home after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced he would issue the children with travel documents if they could find their way to an Australian embassy.

Sharrouf made headlines in Australia when he posted photos of his then seven-year-old son holding a severed head to social media in 2014.

Khaled Sharrouf’s surviving three children.
Khaled Sharrouf’s surviving three children.

Two of his sons have since been killed, along with Sharrouf and their mother, Tara Nettleton. The eldest of the surviving children, Zaynab, was married off when she was just 13-years-old to another Australian IS fighter, Mohamed Elomar, who was also killed in battle.

Experts believe this string of traumatic incidents means it is unlikely their return to Australia will be as simple as moving back into their grandmother’s suburban Sydney home and returning to school or starting university.

Do the children pose a terror risk?

In addition to psychological issues, experts have pointed to the potential risks of returning indoctrinated children to Australia.

Madeline Nyst, a specialist in countering violent extremism, told ABC News that bringing the children back without a plan in place could pose security threats in the future.


But despite these concerns, the government is yet to set out a specific plan for how to manage the return of children who have spent years within the "caliphate".

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said any children seeking to return to Australia would be treated on a "case-by-case basis" and normal character checks would apply.

"Australia’s current approach to countering violent extremism (CVE) focuses on early intervention to prevent young people radicalising to violent extremism and diverting those at risk of harming themselves or others," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Through the Living Safe Together program, the government provides funding to states and territories to implement intervention programs, which offer support, referral and diversion processes to "identify and assist individuals to disengage from violent extremism."

But children who have been indoctrinated by IS face unique challenges. 

As seen in leaked images of IS school textbooks, children within the regime were taught early about warfare, violence and religion. They have also often witnessed violence, including beheadings, first hand.

University of Sydney education and social work lecturer and religious identity expert, Remy Low, believes the key to undoing the indoctrination of young people is teaching critical thinking.

"Not just telling them what to think, but how to think critically about the information they've received and how to make sense of the information they've received,” he told SBS News.

Radicalisation expert, Dr Remy Low.
Radicalisation expert, Dr Remy Low.

Addressing concerns about potential radicalisation, Dr Low said Australia already has resources to support these adolescents, but that professionals need to be supported and trained in cultural competency. 

"It would be a real comment on our government's perspective on our education system, or social work system and our legal system if we don't think we have the adequate capacity to work with these young people," he said.

“It’s also a sign of strength, a sign of leadership to say actually, we are mature enough are professionals are well trained enough to deal with this."

He added that the government needs to be supporting community-led intervention as opposed to programs that focus on "monitoring".

The destroyed city of Raqqa, the former capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate.
The destroyed city of Raqqa, the former capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate.

"The better [anti-violence] programs that I have awareness of are programs that are run in close consultation with communities that the young people reside in," he said.

"A place where a young person can ask 'oh, well if I am from this religious or cultural community does it necessarily mean I have to support group X?' and for someone in a senior and experienced position from the community to say 'no, you actually don't have to'."

Should the government provide psychological treatment?

CEO of the Australian Childhood Trauma Group Gregory Nicolau said the government should also be responsible for providing psychological support to ensure the children do not become resentful of Australia in the future.

“I think we have to ensure that the right programs and support are put in place and, in particular, that we track their mental health and well-being over time to ensure that they’re not going to come back and perhaps say ‘well, Australia holds nothing for me because it did nothing to support me as a child’,” he said.


“Children, whether there's been sexual, physical, emotional, abuse and neglect, can never be held responsible for what's happened.”

Mr Nicolau, who has been a psychologist for 25 years, said this support can take multiple forms and is dependent on what the adolescent needs.

He explained the concept of an “internal working model”, which shapes how people view who they are and what they value at a very early age. According to Mr Nicolau, the shaping of the “internal working model” that took place prior to children leaving Australia could still exist.

“It's still there and there may be some good foundations with which to work with these children,” he said.

If the children were indoctrinated at a very early age - for example, by their parents before they joined IS - a more intensive psychological intervention might be needed. That the children might suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder is another real possibility.

Mr Law said that the children are showing "many signs of distress", including nervousness, withdrawal, aggression, nightmares and bedwetting.

“We've got to be very careful that we don't wash our hands of our responsibilities,” Mr Nicolau added.

“These children belong here, they’re Australian citizens and therefore we have to do what we can to embrace them bring them back into the country and help them to heal from the scars of their experiences.”

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