Al-Hawl camp in Syria

© 2019 Human Rights Watch
(Al-Hol Camp, northeast Syria) –Sitting on the floor of a shack in a locked desert camp in north-east Syria, her baby boy in her lap and her two other children nestled by her side, Radhia* had only one question.

"Please, can you tell me," she asked, "when will Australia bring us home?"

That same week in June, Australia evacuated eight Australian children from al-Hawl, the same camp where Radhia and her children have been detained since January.

Radhia and her children, too, are Australian citizens. While the eight evacuated children were brought home to Australia, Radhia and her children remain indefinitely detained by a Kurdish-led coalition in al-Hawl, a camp rife with disease and despair.

"People think we are monsters," said Radhia, who did not want her real name used in order to protect her children. "Please tell them we are humans, just like them."

At least 50 Australian women and children remain in al-Hawl, according to Save the Children, which has urged Australia to bring them all home. They are among about 11,000 foreigners — more than 7,000 children and about 3,000 women — from about 50 countries who are held in the camp.

The self-declared Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria, which is detaining the foreigners, says it will not prosecute them and has urged their governments to repatriate them. But most countries are bringing home only token numbers, leaving the rest in legal limbo.

Indeed, just days after the evacuations of the eight children from al-Hawl, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton introduced draconian revisions to Australian law that would ban alleged foreign fighters as young as 14 from returning to Australia for two years.

During visits to al-Hawl from June 21 to 23, I found dire conditions including overflowing latrines and sewage trickling into tattered tents.

Young children with skin rashes, emaciated limbs and swollen bellies were drinking wash water from tanks containing worms. Other children lay limp with fever on tent floors, their bodies dusted with flies and dirt.

Children are dying from acute diarrhea and flu-like infections, aid groups and camp managers told me.

A key reason for the squalor is donor nations' reluctance to assist potential Islamic State members or sympathizers, camp managers and aid workers said. But international law forbids denying essential aid based on religious or ideological affiliation. Moreover, children who lived under Islamic State are victims first and foremost, and many of their mothers are, too.

Speaking softly and stroking the hair of her children, ages 3, 1 and a half and 6 months, Radhia said she had never planned to leave Australia to live under Islamic State. But one day, she said, her Australian husband told her, "'I am going, you are coming with me.' I was thinking, 'Why? We are comfortable.' But as a Muslim woman you follow your husband."

She said the couple crossed into Syria via Turkey in 2014 and settled in Tal Abyad, an IS-held town on the northern border. After Tal Abyad fell in 2015, they moved from one shrinking IS-held pocket to another.

In 2017, Radhia's husband was killed in a coalition drone strike. Radhia said she could not find a way out until January, when the caliphate lost its grip on Deir al-Zour. Then she and her children joined thousands of starving, shell-shocked families streaming out.

Radhia did not want to talk about her husband or the father of her third child. But she spoke at length about her dreams for her children: a real roof over their heads, clean water, fresh food, school.

Like all detainees at al-Hawl, Radhia and her children live in a tent and subsist on scant dry rations. The shack where she sat was a shared kitchen whose concrete floors and walls were her greatest luxury.

While I can't verify Radhia's story, her children deserve to be rescued and promptly brought to Australia from al-Hawl like the children evacuated in June.

Absent clear, compelling evidence that they could harm their children, women like Radhia should be brought home as well. Leaving mothers behind places children in even greater danger and risks fueling instability and grief. International law provides all nationals the right to return to their home country.

If the Australian authorities have grounds to believe that Radhia or other Australians have committed crimes during their years under Islamic State, they should investigate them in line with international standards, and prosecute them in Australia as appropriate.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself said that children born in IS areas or brought there by their mothers or fathers "should not be punished for the crimes of their parents".

Yet that is precisely what Australia will do if it abandons Radhia and her three children to indefinite detention without charge in al-Hawl.