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A boy lugs water in Roj camp in northeast Syria, May 2022.  2022 San Saravan for HRW ©

“Yunus” is eight. He plays soccer and saxophone and enjoys play dates with friends. He’s near the top of his class at school, loves dinosaurs, and wants to be an archeologist when he grows up. 

Until three years ago, he was detained in a camp in northeast Syria for family members of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects. His mother was killed in a bombing in Syria, and his father is detained without charge in the region as an alleged ISIS member. Now, he lives with his grandmother and two brothers in France.

The squalid, locked camps where he was detained hold about 38,000 foreign nationals, mostly the wives and children of male ISIS suspects. More than 60 percent of them are children. While most detainees are from neighboring Iraq, more than 10,000 are from about 60 other countries. Among them are an estimated 23 Canadian children and 19 Canadian women. Eight Canadian men are believed to be held in prisons or detention facilities in the region.  

Many countries, including Canada, have been reluctant to bring their nationals back from the camps, fearful that they may be security threats. But that’s changing. In just the last few weeks, Australia, France, and the Netherlands collectively accepted 32 women and 83 children. Other countries, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, Sweden, Tajikistan, Ukraine, the United States, and Uzbekistan have repatriated many or most of the women and children detained in northeast Syria, and the United States has also repatriated men.

Over the past year, I’ve interviewed and surveyed family members, teachers, social workers, and mental health professionals about approximately 100 children who are now living in Western Europe and Central Asia to see how they are faring. 

This is what I found: most are doing well in school, and some, like Yunus, are at the top of their class. They enjoy typical childhood activities like sleepovers, jumping on trampolines, and playing with Lego. 

The mother of a 5-year-old boy in Sweden told me her son loves hip hop music and choreographing dances for his siblings. The mother of a 9-year-old boy in Kazakhstan said her son enjoys riding a scooter and playing hide-and-seek with his friends. These mothers were repatriated with their children, a vital move to maintain family unity and ensure the best interests of the child. 

To be sure, some children struggle.  Most were taken by their parents to live in the ISIS “caliphate” or born in that conflict zone, where they may have witnessed violence or suffered injuries or other trauma. Many of their fathers were killed in battles or are imprisoned by a US-backed force in the region. Some have lost their mothers as well. Understandably, many need ongoing psychosocial support. But I found that despite enduring incredible suffering, many children are reintegrating remarkably well.

Compared to most other countries that have been repatriating their nationals, Canada lags far behind. It has accepted the returns of only four children and three women, including two women and two children in October. 

Yet Canada is well-equipped to accept the remaining Canadian women and children in the camps. It has accepted thousands of refugee children, who, like children in the camps, have often experienced displacement, conflict-related violence, family separation or loss, and interrupted schooling. In late 2015 and 2016, it accepted approximately 20,000 child refugees from Syria, and after the Taliban retook Afghanistan, resettled over 3,800 school-aged children from Afghanistan. Canada has also offered refuge for thousands of children fleeing the war in Ukraine. 

Security and humanitarian experts warn that the already dire conditions in the camps in northeast Syria are deteriorating and that the camps are becoming increasingly dangerous as ISIS loyalists attack other detainees, camp authorities, and aid workers, and ISIS steps up recruitment, often targeting children. Hundreds of children have died, many from preventable diseases, malnutrition, and hypothermia. 

Paul Champ, an Ottawa-based attorney who represented a mother allowed to return to Canada in 2021, told me, “If we let those children grow up in the camps, they will—and rightly so—have only contempt for Canadian institutions.”

Canada should help bring home the rest of the Canadian children and their mothers, and take steps to bring back the rest of the women and the men, too. Adults can be investigated and prosecuted if warranted.

The greatest danger for Canada is not accepting the return of children from the camps in northeast Syria. It’s leaving them there. 

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