May 19, 2022
The Right Honorable Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
Langevin Block, 80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A3
Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,
Human Rights Watch writes to you today to highlight the urgent need for action to address the untenable situation facing an estimated four dozen Canadians unlawfully detained in camps and prisons in northeast Syria for suspected links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Like the thousands of other foreigners held in northeast Syria for suspected ISIS links, the Canadian detainees have not been charged with any crime. Approximately half of the Canadian detainees are children who never chose to be born or live under ISIS. They have no hope of leaving without your government’s intervention.
Since February and March 2019, the Kurdish-led authorities have arbitrarily detained these Canadians in appalling and life-threatening conditions, exposing them to daily human rights abuses. According to UN experts, these conditions meet the threshold of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. During this time, the humanitarian and security situation has continued to dramatically deteriorate, highlighting the urgent need for repatriation. There are routine and often harsh shortages of food and access to clean water. Healthcare remains woefully insufficient. Hundreds have died of preventable illness, accidents, or violence between detainees or between detainees and guards. The illness, lack of basic hygiene and overcrowding in the camps have also created a prime environment for the spread of Covid-19 and add to the despair of detainees and their families.
In al-Hol, the larger of the two camps, security incidents have increased significantly in the last two years. Killings and threats by ISIS members of other camp detainees whom they consider moderates or suspect of cooperating with the authorities are now routine, with even local authorities and al-Hol administrators now saying ISIS holds sway over the camp. Clashes between guards and detainees have also caused several deaths including of adult residents, aid workers, and a boy who was shot dead by guards in February. The regional authorities’ fighting force is removing boys ages 12 and above to other detention centers where they are separated from their mothers and siblings. The Kurdish Red Crescent and Save the Children report that hundreds of children have died since 2019, as well as adults.
Conditions are even worse in the overcrowded prisons holding thousands of foreign male detainees, including up to 850 boys. One of these prisons was assaulted by ISIS in January 2022, leading to a deadly, 10-day battle. At least three Canadian adults, including at least one father of children held in the northeast Syrian camps, were held in that prison, according to sources. At least two detained boys are reported to have died in clashes outside the prison and detainees told Human Rights Watch that many other children had died inside, although the regional authorities have not released any details on how many children were killed or injured. While no Canadian boys are known to be imprisoned at this time, they are destined for such detention centers as they reach adolescence or early adulthood. Given this increasingly untenable situation, the Kurdish-led authorities in northeast Syria have repeatedly urged countries of origin, including Canada, to repatriate their nationals.
It is our view that the Canadian government is limiting consular assistance to its citizens detained in northeast Syria in a discriminatory and arbitrary manner based on their suspected links to ISIS and presence in northeast Syria. The adoption of a consular policy framework in January 2021 specifically for this group of citizens, which makes it near-impossible for them to return home, underscores the discriminatory nature of Canada’s provision of consular assistance to these detainees.
The policy states that the government will “consider” providing assistance to unaccompanied children; children separated from their parent(s) who are now de facto unaccompanied; and detainees whose situation has “changed significantly since the adoption of the policy framework.” For nearly a year, Global Affairs Canada did not even share the framework with the detainees or their Canada-based family members seeking the government’s help to repatriate them. To our knowledge, all Canadian children remaining in northeast Syria are living with their mothers, making them and their mothers ineligible for repatriation. Moreover, without Canada’s permission, these citizens cannot leave these closed camps and prisons to get home on their own unless they were to pay smugglers to take them out, a process that is both life-threatening and illegal.
As you know, the authorities in northeast Syria have never charged Canadians detained in the camps with any crime or taken them before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention, which is what makes their captivity both arbitrary and unlawful. The detention of Canadian children in the camps and prisons in northeast Syria solely on the basis of their suspected ISIS affiliation or their family ties to ISIS suspects, with no judicial review or criminal charge, amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment, which are prohibited under international human rights law as well as the laws of war.
We urge your government to repatriate, as a matter of urgent priority, all Canadians unlawfully detained in northeast Syria. In keeping with the rights of the child outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, both of which Canada has ratified, Canada should recognize the detained children first and foremost as victims. Children should not be repatriated without their mothers—who may themselves be victims of ISIS—absent compelling evidence that separation is in the best interest of the child. The Canadian government should also promptly provide consular assistance to detained nationals, verify citizenship, issue travel documents, and coordinate safe passage from northeast Syria to Canadian consulates or territory.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
Human Rights Watch