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A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol, a camp in northeast Syria detaining thousands of foreign women and children from countries including Canada as family members of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects.
© 2019 Sam Tarling
After months of inaction, the Canadian government announced Monday that it had repatriated a 5-year-old orphan, Amira, who was trapped in a camp for Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and family members in northeast Syria. Amira’s overdue rescue should not become an excuse for the government to stall on repatriating the 46 other Canadian nationals held in northeast Syrian camps and prisons teeming with deadly disease, inhuman treatment, and despair.
Amira’s Canadian parents and siblings were killed during one of the final battles against ISIS. Canadian relatives, who will care for her, took the government to court in July to press their plea to bring her home.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that Amira’s case was “exceptional” and a one-off. While Amira may be the only Canadian orphan held in northeast Syria, her fellow citizens – 26 children, 13 women, and 8 men – are also in desperate need. For the past 18 months or more, a cash-strapped, Kurdish-led local authority has detained them in makeshift, overcrowded prisons and camps, alongside tens of thousands of other ISIS suspects and relatives from Syria and 60 foreign countries.
These detainees, particularly the children, lived through unspeakable horrors under ISIS. As Human Rights Watch has documented, they now suffer from acute shortages of clean water, fresh food, and health care. Contagious diseases reportedly have killed several hundred detainees since 2019. Two have tested positive for Covid-19 and the United Nations says the number may be far higher. None of the Canadians or other foreign detainees have been brought before a judge.
Local authorities have received scant assistance from the foreign detainees’ home countries, most of which have at best brought home token numbers of citizens – usually orphans or young children, sometimes, unconscionably, without their mothers.
Canada’s duties to protect its citizens – all its citizens – extend beyond its borders. After repatriating its citizens, Canada should help rehabilitate and reintegrate the children, all of whom are ISIS victims. It can monitor or prosecute the adults as appropriate – allowing greater oversight than if they remained in northeast Syria, where hundreds have escaped the camps and prisons. Saving Amira was a valiant decision. But other Canadian lives remain at risk.