As calls grow for the federal government to intervene to help the Australian children and their mothers caught in Syrian refugee camps to come home, experts say they will need a lot of help to settle back in.
And they say Australia is well prepared to offer it.
Citing an International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation analysis, the Lowy Institute reports there are 30 to 40 women and 70 children in the sprawling camps in the north of Syria, forced to flee when Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate” collapsed.
National security experts say they should be helped to come home for security reasons, so the younger children are not indoctrinated by jihadis living in the camp, and to make sure the adults are not in a position to radicalise other Australians online.
On Monday, the oldest daughter of the now dead notorious Sydney terrorist Khaled Sharrouf and his wife Tara Nettleton, Zaynab told the ABC she, her remaining siblings and her children wanted to come home and they should not pay for the crimes of their parents.
If the and the other children of Islamic State parents do return, NSW Parents’ Council president and child psychologist Dr Rose Cantali says it will be crucial to meet basic needs such as housing and clothing so the children are able to feel they belong.
“That sense of belonging is so important … there would be so much fear about what is going to happen so that sense of security is very important,” she said.
Cantali said it is also crucial the children – of whom 12 are understood to be aged under 10 years old – have a lot of positive interaction with the broader Australian culture as well as those from their own community.
“You just don’t know what information they have been provided with, what impressions they have of Western society, so you have to insert them in a Western culture in a positive way.”
She said counselling support is also crucial, as post-traumatic stress may be an issue.
“It is always easier with the younger ones, because there is less of a sense of loss,” Cantali said.
“But with the older ones, there are likely to be chronic psychological problems that need to be addressed – and also for those around them, not just the children.”
They had no choice
Australian National University criminologist Dr Clarke Jones, who spent 15 years working in national security roles, said the youngsters had little choice about their lives and where they were taken.
“We have to be conscious of the age group, especially the kids,” he said.
For the older children and their mothers, he said there are many ways they can be assisted back into Australian society.
‘They have been exposed to terrible things.’
“We need to talk about compassion and second chances, and we have the systems in place, a lot of money has gone into deradicalisation and so we do have the capacity,” Jones said.
Western Sydney GP and Muslim community leader Dr Jamal Rifi said the children “should not pay for the sins of their parents”.
“They have been exposed to terrible things,” Rifi said.
“But I wouldn’t say it is going to be easy.
“These people have been traumatised, but we can engage with them one on one, we can give them education, counselling and support and a better knowledge of the Muslim religion.”
Rifi said the youngsters under 12 would need to be looked after by their extended family, receive psychological support and engage with the community.
“We can get the kids enrolled in their local schools, help them with transport, and outings on the weekend, get them involved with local sports, Scouts and with active young people.”
He said the older children could spend time with religious leaders to help deradicalise them.
“They will be able to interact with them and show them the wrong ideology they have followed and show them what has been done is contrary to teaching and what we actually believe,” Rifi said.