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Canadian Kimberly Polman in Roj camp in northeast Syria. © 2019 Maya Alleruzzo/AP Photo

“This place guarantees you lose your sanity, your dignity, your humanity one way or another…It’s exhausting trying to protect myself all day, all night. I can’t do it anymore."  Kimberly Polman, a 49-year-old Canadian woman, wrote these words in late September in a locked desert camp in northeast Syria. A week earlier, she began a hunger strike to protest her lack of adequate medical care. She is unlikely to live much longer without immediate assistance.  

Polman is among nearly four dozen Canadian men, women and children who have been detained for more than two years in northeast Syria in camps and prisons for Islamic State (ISIS) suspects and their families. They are among more than 40,000 foreigners rounded up after the fall of the group’s self-declared caliphate in 2019. They are held in deeply degrading, life-threatening and often inhuman conditions. They have never been charged with any crime. The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration, the de facto government in northeast Syria, has not even brought them before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention.

It didn’t have to come to this. The Kurdish authorities have been pleading with Canada and other states to take responsibility for their nationals and repatriate them. But for more than two years, the Trudeau government has dragged its feet, doing little to nothing to bring an end to the Canadians’ misery. Canada has only allowed the return of two nationals, an orphaned girl in October 2020 and another young girl in March. The government refused to even allow the Canadian mother of the second child to come home with her, separating her from her daughter and leaving her in limbo.

The Canadians include more than 20 children, most age 6 and under, who never chose to live under ISIS. Their detention amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment. Abandoned by their government, these Canadians’ desperation and helplessness has now reached a breaking point as another Canadian woman, a mother of three, reportedly began a hunger strike this month.

According to her sister, Polman, an adult convert to Islam, headed to Syria in 2015 after she met and married an ISIS member online who persuaded her to join him with promises of love and a career in nursing. Her sister said she was easy prey, having grown up in a dysfunctional household with an abusive father who struggled with substance use. Polman lost her public housing shortly before going to Syria when her then adult children moved out. The help she was desperate for, government-sponsored financial assistance, arrived just days after she left Canada.

Soon after she arrived, she contacted her family, confessed that she travelled to Syria, and told them that she wanted out. But she said her husband physically and emotionally abused her and wouldn’t let her leave. Her family didn’t hear from her again for many months and presumed she was dead. When she finally resurfaced, she told them that her husband had put her in an ISIS prison in Raqqa for 10 months for being a “disobedient wife.” She said her captors raped her and gave her so little food that her weight plummeted.

Since then and over the course of her detention by the Kurdish-led authorities, she described grappling with numerous health problems including kidney and lung infections, and repeated bouts of hepatitis. In her September 20 letter, Polman describes her health in harrowing terms. “I am continually bleeding,” she writes. “My teeth are all legs cannot walk or stand... I am dying a slow death here and I have done everything I can think of to get help. Nothing has worked.” A recent medical assessment from a humanitarian group concluded that it is “unlikely that she is going to survive if she remains in the camp without access to both medical and psychological care for much longer.”   

The illness, filth and overcrowding in the camps have created a prime environment for the spread of Covid-19 and are increasing the despair of detainees and their families. Covid-19 is rapidly spreading across northeast Syria with nearly 30,000 cases reported in the region in September alone. The World Health Organization has warned of “significant risk” of high transmission in the camps. Much of the population does not have sufficient access to services including health care, water, sanitation, and shelter.

Family members in Canada say consular officials have made no effort to establish direct contact with their detained loved ones much less improve the conditions of their detention. Nor has the government officially verified the citizenship of the detained children born in Syria to Canadian parents, leaving them essentially stateless.

It is hard to believe that Canada, a champion on children in armed conflict on the international stage that launched a global declaration against arbitrary detention just this year, continues to turn a blind eye to the plight of its own nationals trapped in a war zone amid a deadly pandemic. The government’s inaction stands in stark contrast to the rapid and robust evacuations of thousands of Canadians stranded abroad during the pandemic; as well as the actions of about 25 other countries, including Canadian allies, who have brought home some or many of their nationals from these same camps. Just weeks ago, aided by the US, Germany and Denmark evacuated 11 women and 37 children from the same camps holding Canadian women and children.

But the Prime Minister remains intransigent, unwilling to use any political capital to save the lives of these Canadians; offering only excuses to justify his government’s unconscionable position. For two years, Global Affairs Canada has recycled the same tired talking points about Canada’s lack of consular presence in Syria and thus limited ability to provide consular assistance, though other countries have managed to overcome these challenges to repatriate their nationals. By failing to act, this government is flouting its international legal obligation to intervene when citizens abroad face serious abuses including foreseeable threats to life, torture, and inhuman and degrading treatment.

While the government’s position has remained static for over two years, this paralysis is becoming increasingly embarrassing and untenable. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly called for countries to repatriate their nationals from northeast Syria and in March called it “absolutely essential” for  Canada to do so. In February, the UN’s top expert on human rights and counterterrorism placed Canada on a “list of shame” for its failure to repatriate Canadian children from these camps. In June, a parliamentary committee called on the government to “pursue all options possible” to repatriate Canadian children detained in northeast Syria. The committee urged the government to “make every effort” to provide consular assistance to all detained Canadians. In recent weeks, a class action application was also filed on behalf of Canadian detainees and their families in Canada to force the government’s hand.

In October 2019, Polman wrote a letter to the United Nations co-signed by 10 other detained women expressing remorse and offering to describe the horrors of their time in Syria to deter others from joining extremist armed groups. “We survived ISIS, we were the lucky ones. … But can we survive the camps,” she said. The answer to that question lies squarely with the prime minister. He has the power to bring these Canadians home. They can be rehabilitated, reintegrated, and prosecuted if necessary. Their lives are in his hands.

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