France has repatriated 35 children and 16 mothers from detention camps in Syria for prisoners with links to jihadi groups, a shift in its long-held policy of very occasional returns that had been criticised by human rights groups and put it at odds with other European countries.

Since Isis fighters surrendered their last Syrian enclave in 2019, the last scrap of a self-declared caliphate that included neighbouring regions of Iraq, many of the women who had left their countries to join militant groups ended up in the camps.

Activists, relatives and organisations including the UN have sounded the alarm over the fate of children stuck in the Kurdish-run centres, where sanitary conditions are often dire. Many were either born there or were taken to Syria at a young age. About 150 French minors remain in the camps, and campaigners have urged all European governments to speed up the repatriation process.

France had remained an outlier in how to deal with the minors and their mothers. It had previously repatriated only a handful of children, mainly orphans or minors whose mothers had been forced to give up their parental rights, even after other European countries began to fly back families.

French anti-terror prosecutors said the newly repatriated children, including seven minors without guardians, had been taken into care. One child who is nearly 18 and suspected of having links to a terror group has been detained.

The women, who were either French nationals or had French children, had faced either arrest or search warrants and were being dealt with by judicial authorities, the French foreign office said.

Until recently the idea of repatriations on a larger scale had proved unpopular, French opinion polls showed. The country was still reeling from a series of terror attacks planned by Islamist cells in Syria, including the killing of 130 people at restaurants and a concert hall in Paris in November 2015.

Victims’ associations from the 2015 attacks had come out in favour this year of bringing children and their mothers back to France, however, coinciding with the trial of some of the perpetrators that sought in part to confront the traumatic chapter. The case was concluded with convictions for 20 assailants last week.

The repatriations also come after a long season of political campaigning and elections in France that has now drawn to a close, with Emmanuel Macron in the first months of his second presidential term.

Relatives of the French children welcomed the move on Tuesday, but said all of the minors still stuck in Syrian camps needed to be returned.

“We hope this repatriation signals the end of this abject ‘case-by-case’ policy, which comes down to sorting between children, separating brothers and sisters and tearing children away from their mothers who are abandoned in the camps,” the United Families campaign group said.

The UN’s children’s rights committee in February had backed calls from the French relatives of children in the Syrian camps for them to be returned to France, saying their lives were at risk from illnesses and violence.

Save the Children in March urged governments to step up repatriation efforts after Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and other European countries that had been more amenable to larger returns began to fly out children and mothers. Belgium repatriated six mothers and 16 children from north-eastern Syria in June.

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