On the surface, it seems like a happy ending: a 4-year-old Canadian girl is flown home to Canada on Sunday after living the first half of her life under the Islamic State (ISIS) and the second in a squalid detention camp in northeast Syria.
But her rescue came at a wrenching price. Canada agreed to let the girl come home but not her Canadian mother, who had traveled to Syria and married an ISIS member. Mother and daughter have no idea when they will be reunited.
“If I had to choose again, I don’t know if I would have done it,” the mother told me of her decision to let her daughter go. “It’s the hardest sacrifice for a mother to make.”
The mother is among nearly 12,000 women and children from nearly 60 countries indefinitely detained in camps for family members of ISIS suspects in northeast Syria. Detainees and aid workers tell Human Rights Watch the camps are plagued with contaminated water, leaky tents, insufficient food and medicine, and hardline female ISIS members who threaten those who regret joining the so-called Caliphate. Hundreds of detainees including children have died from lack of medical care, safety hazards, or camp violence.
Most Western countries, including Canada, have brought home few of their detained citizens, ignoring calls by local authorities to repatriate them. Most have only accepted orphans or younger children without their parents, though countries like Germany and Finland have brought home a few mothers. International law requires countries to uphold the right to family unity absent compelling evidence that separation is in the best interest of the child.
All children associated with armed conflict should be considered as victims, not just a token few, and while some of these women may have committed crimes, many are victims of ISIS, too. None have been brought before a judge since their detention.
Canada and other countries should take urgent action to repatriate all their citizens from northeast Syria. Once home they can be offered rehabilitation and reintegration. Adults can be prosecuted if warranted.
The mother of the repatriated Canadian girl says she has not committed any crimes in Syria but is ready to be judged if the process is fair. “I am willing to make amends for my actions and stand trial,” she told me. “I just need to be home to do that.”