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Government Fails to Bring Australians from Syrian Camps Home

Families Prepare Legal Action to Secure Repatriation as Camp Security Deteriorates

 Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State group fighters, in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh governorate, August 2, 2021.  © 2021 Delil Souleiman/Getty Images

Families of some 40 Australian women and children held in dire conditions in camps in northeast Syria for years have resorted to preparing legal action with the child rights group Save the Children to try and secure their repatriation.

The Australian government shouldn’t have let it come to this.

Many of the women and children detained in these camps were taken to Syria by spouses, parents, or other family members who sought to join the Islamic State (ISIS). For over four years, they have now languished in camps run by Kurdish-led regional authorities that are rife with disease, despair, and death, effectively abandoned by the Australian government. What is worse, the children are being collectively punished for the acts of their parents.

As each day passes, the risks to the Australians’ health and safety can grow. In particular, three Australian boys approaching adolescence face the risk of being forcibly removed from the camps and taken to separate locations without their mothers. One Australian boy died last year in a prison for older boys and men. These camps are inside an active war zone, exacerbating the risks these Australians face.

Human Rights Watch has been advocating for the Australian women and children held in the camps to be repatriated. The authorities should also work to bring back the Australian men held in prisons in northeast Syria for alleged ISIS links. Our 2022 research on children repatriated to countries across Europe and Central Asia found that many had integrated smoothly back into their home countries. Adults can be monitored or prosecuted back home as appropriate.

While the new government has repatriated 17 nationals, bringing the total to 24 returnees from northeast Syria thus far, they have not yet allowed the returns of Australian citizens who remain in these camps. Litigation has prompted repatriations by other countries, including the Netherlands and Canada.

While in opposition, the Labor party said in 2019 that the government had a “moral duty” to bring home women and children taken to ISIS territory against their will. If the Australian government does not act to let these remaining Australians come home, Save the Children and their legal team will have no other choice but to engage in litigation to ensure the women and children can do so. It is incumbent upon the government to abide by their previous moral convictions instead of using taxpayer money to fight a legal challenge like this.

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