Foreign Affairs Committee recommends that Ottawa repatriate children detained in Syria

Women and children walk to Camp Roj in the countryside near al-Malikiyah (Derik) in Hasakah province, northeastern Syria.

DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP / Getty Images

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that the government “seek all possible options” to repatriate Canadian children detained in camps in northeastern Syria.

The report tabled in Parliament stems from the committee’s study of how COVID-19 affects children. In the report, MPs said they heard about the deplorable conditions in camps where Canadian children were held, without clean water, access to basic health care and in constant conflict. Many children have died from preventable causes, they heard.

In 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces arrested thousands of people from more than 60 countries, including Canada, who were living among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s last roadblock in the city of Baghouz took place. is collapsed. Foreigners were held in two camps, al-Hol and Roj, as well as in prisons in northeastern Syria. Human Rights Watch estimates that 45 Canadians are detained in Syria, including 24 children.

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Experts decried the dire conditions in the camps, calling on governments to repatriate their citizens. It has been a complicated political dilemma for the Trudeau government – risking a backlash to repatriate potential Islamic State supporters or leaving Canadians to languish.

The fact that Liberal members support the repatriation of children is a departure from the government’s position. Over the past two years, Global Affairs Canada has said it is too dangerous to send diplomatic personnel to the region.

On Thursday, when asked about the report, Patricia Skinner, spokesperson for the GAC, reiterated that the government is aware of Canadian citizens being held in Syria and is particularly concerned about children. Given the security situation, she said, the government’s ability to provide consular assistance is extremely limited. “Canadian consular officials are actively working with Syrian Kurdish authorities to obtain information on Canadians in their custody,” said Ms. Skinner.

Ottawa agreed to repatriate a four-year-old girl in March, but prevented her mother from accompanying her. At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the child’s family took the initiative to bring him to Canada. In October, the government agreed to allow a five-year-old orphan to return home. Mr. Trudeau had called this an exceptional case.

The committee’s report also recommended that, while taking into account the safety of government employees, Ottawa make “every effort” to provide consular services to all Canadians detained in Syria. It recommends pursuing, alongside the international community, a response in accordance with humanitarian and criminal law, while continuing to demand accountability for the crimes that may have been committed.

Farida Deif, Canadian director of Human Rights Watch, said her organization is encouraged by the report and hopes it will change the government’s political calculus.

“It is a relief to see that the seriousness of the human rights violations suffered by Canadian children detained in northeastern Syria is finally being recognized,” said Ms. Deif. “The report is particularly welcome given that our engagement with the government over the past year on these consular cases seems to have fallen on deaf ears.”

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Members of the opposition committee tabled a supplementary report, recommending that the government act “immediately to facilitate the swift repatriation” of Canadian children and any other “innocent person” threatened with arbitrary detention abroad, particularly those of al-Hol and Roj camps. The opposition report urges Ottawa to immediately provide consular services to Canadians.

“The current policy of leaving children in indefinite detention to punish them for the crimes of others, and to hide behind the complexity of sorting the innocent from the guilty in order to justify doing nothing for the innocent, is immoral and anti-Canadian, ”the opposition report said.

NDP MP Heather McPherson said MPs tabled a supplementary report because they did not believe the Liberals were ready to express the urgency of the situation and the need for action in the main report.

“It should happen right away,” she told The Globe and Mail, adding that the NDP also believes that all Canadians detained in Syria should be repatriated and those who committed crimes should be brought to justice.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said opposition members are gripped by the plight of Canadian children.

“This is an urgent and fundamental human rights issue that affects Canadian citizens who are very young. This clearly attracts us all to the opposition parties, ”he said.

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