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How Central Asia Approaches Repatriation and Reintegration From Middle East War Zones

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How Central Asia Approaches Repatriation and Reintegration From Middle East War Zones

Central Asian nations have seized the initiative, emerging as worldwide pioneers in tackling the challenge of repatriating and reintegrating citizens who traveled to Iraq and Syria.

How Central Asia Approaches Repatriation and Reintegration From Middle East War Zones

The inaugural meeting of the Central Asia Regional Expert Council in Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Returnees convened in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Credit: OSCE

A June 2023 report by UNICEF estimates around 40,000 members from more than 80 nations journeyed to Syria and Iraq to support the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS) and other extremist organizations between 2011 and 2016. While some may have joined willingly, others, including relatives of foreign terrorist fighters, may have been deceived or pressured into participation. Following the defeat of the Islamic State in 2019, numerous men, women, and children remain in camps and detention centers in northeastern Syria and Iraq, facing complex challenges in terms of humanitarian aid, security, and human rights.

To address the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters to global peace and security, the United Nations Security Council, through resolutions 2178 (2014) and 2396 (2017), urged member states to create and execute specific and comprehensive plans for the prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters and their families in compliance with international law. This was further emphasized in the Eighth Review of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (UNGCTS) (A/RES/77/298), where the General Assembly acknowledged the significance of enhancing international cooperation, promoting information sharing, and establishing risk assessments and counter-terrorism strategies that consider age and gender aspects.

Central Asian nations have seized the initiative to tackle this challenge, emerging as worldwide pioneers in repatriating and reintegrating their citizens. By March 2024, over 2,100 individuals had been repatriated to the region through humanitarian missions orchestrated by Central Asian countries. Notably, Kazakhstan welcomed back 754 of its people, Kyrgyzstan 511, Tajikistan 334, and Uzbekistan 531.

Upon their return, repatriated individuals, primarily women and children, have undergone a rehabilitation process followed by tailored initiatives to support their peaceful reintegration into families and communities. Each country has established its own program and gathered expertise in this area, the sharing of which on a regional scale would be beneficial for all stakeholders. Given the ongoing repatriation efforts of Central Asian states, it is crucial to enhance coordination among regional experts to simplify procedures, particularly in intricate criminal cases.

In light of these circumstances, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed creating a Regional Expert Council comprising leading specialists from Central Asian nations under the guidance of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT). The primary objective of this Regional Expert Council is to enhance regional and national initiatives for the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals returning from conflict zones and formulate strategies to combat terrorism. This proposal was put forth during the high-level international conference “Regional Cooperation of the Countries of Central Asia within the Framework of the Joint Action Plan for the Implementation of the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy” held on March 3-4, 2022, in Tashkent.

To translate these initiatives into action, Tashkent convened the inaugural meeting of the Regional Expert Council for Central Asia on the rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees on May 15-16, 2024. 

Uzbekistan was among the first nations to take proactive steps to repatriate its citizens from conflict zones. It recognized the importance of addressing the challenges faced by these individuals, mostly women and children, upon their return. Through the five phases of Operation Mehr, 531 individuals, including 381 children, from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan were successfully repatriated to Uzbekistan.

At the UNOCT’s Third High-Level Conference of Heads of Counter-Terrorism Agencies of Member States (HLC) in June 2023, two Uzbek nationals, a mother and daughter returnee, repatriated from the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria provided moving testimonies of their experiences. The initiative, applauded by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, served as a powerful sign of support for his call to member states to expedite repatriation for those from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.

Upon repatriation, the Uzbek government ensured that these individuals received comprehensive support to reintegrate into society successfully. This encompassed access to educational, medical, and social programs vital for their rehabilitation and integration. Moreover, the government offered practical assistance to foster self-sufficiency and economic stability. Some returnees received complimentary housing and low-interest loans, crucial for securing their livelihoods. Others were equipped to establish personal businesses, such as small bakeries and sewing operations, further supporting their journey to rebuild their lives. Social aid was also extended to facilitate a seamless return to their communities.

The Inauguration of the Regional Expert Council

The inaugural meeting of the Regional Expert Council, supported by UNOCT, represents a significant step forward in enforcing global and regional anti-terrorism measures. The event was a direct outcome of the U.N. resolution “Enhancing regional and international partnerships to promote peace, security, and sustainable growth in the Central Asian region,” which was approved in June 2018 after being proposed by Tashkent. It also builds on discussions initiated during the high-level symposium “Central Asia – a shared past and a collective future” held in Samarkand in November 2017.

The gathering convened a diverse array of attendees, including deputy foreign affairs ministers from Central Asia, high-ranking dignitaries representing international bodies like the U.N., OSCE, and UNRCCA, and specialists focused on the rehabilitation and reintegration of repatriates

The main focus of the discussions revolved around Uzbekistan’s updated strategy for countering terrorism, highlighting the significance of preventive, spiritual, and educational initiatives along with administrative and legal measures. This strategy, as outlined in Uzbekistan’s National Strategy for Combating Extremism and Terrorism for 2021-2026, adopts a comprehensive approach that includes social, legal, and material support for victims of terrorism, including repatriates.

The occasion also held a regional workshop intending to exchange insights and best practices in rehabilitation and reintegration among various Central Asian nations. The workshop primarily concentrated on fostering collaboration between national governments and civil society organizations, rehabilitation and reintegration schemes with a focus on specific genders and age groups, access to essential services, the role of local communities and religious leaders, bolstering regional and national initiatives, and establishing an informal regional network.

The meeting echoed the Joint Action Plan to Implement the U.N. Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia and strived to craft a holistic, focused rehabilitation initiative and secure enduring civil society engagement in the reintegration journey. By employing a collaborative and multi-dimensional strategy, the gathering aimed to strengthen the region’s capability to tackle the intricate hurdles arising from the reentry of individuals from conflict zones.

Through various resolutions and assessments, the United Nations has stressed the need for comprehensive approaches involving the prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of these individuals in compliance with international law. Central Asian nations, particularly Uzbekistan, have stood out for their efforts in repatriating and reintegrating their citizens, paying particular attention to women and children, who constitute a notable portion of the returnees.

Uzbekistan’s proactive stance has resulted in the development of tailored rehabilitation schemes and substantial aid to support reintegration efforts, including education, healthcare, and economic opportunities.

The inaugural gathering of the Regional Expert Council represented a crucial stride in implementing global and regional counterterrorism frameworks. It illustrates a comprehensive strategy that addresses the immediate needs of returnees and integrates preventive measures against extremism. By fostering a collaborative atmosphere, these initiatives strengthen regional security, contribute to the global fight against terrorism, and ensure the humane treatment and successful reintegration of conflict-affected individuals. This all-encompassing approach serves as a model for regional and international counter-terrorism endeavors.