Canada increasingly an outlier by keeping its child citizens detained in Syria

Many other countries have repatriated their young nationals from Syria. Doing so is clearly possible and would be in Canada’s security interests, argues Genevieve Zingg.

By: /
December 4, 2019
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Children holding stacks of bread walk in al-Hol camp in Syria, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Freelance journalist

UNICEF recently launched a series of global awareness initiatives for World Children’s Day, which is celebrated annually on November 20. This year, it marked the thirtieth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN-CRC). Though this seminal treaty has led to important improvements in children’s rights worldwide, the ongoing war in Syria highlights the particular vulnerability of children caught in the midst of armed conflicts. More than 29,000 children have reportedly been killed in the country since 2011, while another 50,000 children are currently living in horrific conditions in the al-Hol detention camp holding former Islamic State militants and their families in northeast Syria.

According to Save the Children Canada, which works on the ground in Syria, at least
25 Canadian children are trapped in al-Hol.

Ottawa has so far refused to take any substantive steps towards repatriating these children from Syria, a flagrant breach of its basic obligations under the UN-CRC (Canada ratified the treaty in 1991). The convention requires state parties to ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of children and to take all appropriate measures to protect them from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment.

Some 70,000 former ISIS militants and their families are being detained in the camps in Syria. Al-Hol, the largest camp, holds approximately 11,000 foreign nationals, predominantly women and children. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) guarding the camps have called on the international community to repatriate their nationals with increasing urgency, warning of both growing security concerns and their lack of capacity as a non-state actor to prosecute ISIS fighters and incarcerate them long-term. Human rights groups have also called for foreign nationals to be repatriated, citing serious issues regarding due process and fair trial rights in Iraqi courts, allegations of torture, and the frequent use of capital punishment on persons convicted of terrorism.

Despite this, Western governments have avoided implementing policies obliging them to repatriate and prosecute their nationals in Syria. Some limited exceptions have been made for children, particularly orphans, on an ad hoc basis. Reluctance to establish more comprehensive repatriation policies is largely based on fears of domestic terror attacks and public backlash, as public opinion towards returnees is generally harsh. In France, for example, 89 percent of respondents to a recent survey opposed the repatriation of adult jihadis, while 67 percent opposed even efforts to bring home children. Amidst poor public perception and warnings from internal security services, several governments have further abdicated their repatriation responsibilities under international law by stripping their nationals of citizenship, including that of children born abroad.

Ottawa has repeatedly based its refusal to bring Canadians home on security and logistical grounds, suggesting that repatriation is simply not possible given the instability on the ground. Canadian officials have explicitly relied on this messaging to reject even the repatriation of children. Then-Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, for example, stated in late 2018 that: “The children are in a very vulnerable position, but they are in a war zone half a world away where Canada does not have diplomatic relations.” More recently, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said that Canada does not have the “necessary support” in Syria to bring a four-year-old Canadian orphan home to live with her uncle in Toronto. The child, known only as Amira, is without any family in the camps after her parents and three siblings were killed in an airstrike earlier this year.

Ottawa’s statements regarding the diplomatic and logistical impossibility of repatriation are dubious at best. Over the course of the last year, several Western governments have recognized that the repatriation of foreign nationals is a security and humanitarian imperative and have successfully executed extraction operations to that end. Political resolve in this respect gained momentum after the military defeat of ISIS in Baghouz in March 2019 and the subsequent surrender of thousands of militants and their families to SDF custody. Al-Hol, which in December 2018 was home to only 10,000 mostly internally displaced persons, has seen its population increase more than sevenfold in the months following the collapse of ISIS’s so-called “caliphate.”

With the situation in al-Hol becoming increasingly untenable, several countries have managed to plan, develop and execute repatriation operations despite facing issues identical to those cited by Ottawa. The United States has taken the lead among Western countries, repatriating 18 Americans, including six men, three women and nine children. Other governments have limited the scope of their efforts to children; for example, France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Kosovo and Australia have each brought back children from al-Hol in recent months. Concerns over the return of ISIS women along with their children has caused some nations to further restrict repatriations to unaccompanied minors only, with Sweden extracting seven orphans in May 2019 and Norway repatriating five (leaving another 35 children behind). Finally, the United Kingdom successfully repatriated three orphaned children of British ISIS members from Syria in late November, though the Home Office has warned that these returns are highly exceptional and do not constitute a reversal of the British government’s position.

Several Western governments have recognized that the repatriation of foreign nationals is a security and humanitarian imperative.

Moreover, the number of children repatriated by Western countries is dwarfed in comparison to the extraction operations carried out by Russia and several Central Asian states throughout the last year. Moscow has chartered flights to bring back 122 minors between one and 15 years old, while Uzbekistan arranged an airlift to transport 148 women and children in SDF custody after having them bussed to Qamishli and flown to a Russian air base in Syria for transfer home. Earlier this year, between January and May, Kazakhstan repatriated 524 of its citizens, 357 of whom were children. These examples make abundantly clear that despite the security concerns affecting the camps, extraction plans can be safely carried out and logistical problems overcome.

On both security and humanitarian grounds, Ottawa must reverse its position and urgently repatriate Canadian children trapped in Syria. From a security perspective, leaving children vulnerable to radicalization within the camps poses a far greater long-term risk than would a policy aimed at removing children from such an environment. While reluctance to repatriate adult citizens is largely based on security concerns arising from evidentiary challenges to prosecution, returning children would not be subject to criminal proceedings and therefore this rationale does not apply. Given that children cannot be held legally responsible for choices entirely out of their control, receiving governments have treated returning children outside the criminal justice system, focusing instead on providing psycho-social support, specialized school, job training and family assistance.

Several countries have experimented with different types of de-radicalization and countering violent extremism programs, many of which are aimed at young people and even former child soldiers. Many of these programs, like an “ideological rehab” program praised in the US, target young people who attempted to join ISIS in Syria but were prevented by authorities from doing so successfully. Nonetheless, these programs possess the necessary resources to rehabilitate young children returning from Syria, and Canada is well prepared in this respect: Ottawa has allocated $35 million of its annual federal budget to anti-radicalization initiatives over the last two years and launched the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence in 2017, in addition to establishing the Kanishka Project in 2011. As Amarnath Amarasingam and Leah West recently argued, Canada is fully equipped to rehabilitate young people exposed to violence, neglect and trauma, and entirely capable of ensuring that these 25 children successfully integrate into normal life.

While adult nationals may pose legitimate security threats upon returning from Syria, children — particularly those under five years old — cannot be said to pose similar risks. Though ISIS did force some children to commit gruesome crimes, and those children would obviously present a more nuanced and complicated challenge if repatriated, most Canadian children in al-Hol are under five and incapable of carrying out any significant acts of violence. Most importantly, even those children who recite ISIS rhetoric cannot and must not be held responsible for their own indoctrination: they are victims of their upbringing rather than willing agents of ISIS. Ottawa’s current inaction should be replaced by a smarter and more effective Canadian policy that focuses on ensuring that children of jihadist parents benefit from de-radicalization programs, thorough psychological rehabilitation and a chance to reintegrate into normal life.

Further, children and infants of ISIS parents are at extreme risk of death and disease as a result of the appalling conditions in the camps and lack of access to basic humanitarian aid, including adequate food, shelter, medicine and healthcare. According to the International Rescue Committee, at least 339 children died due to disease and other largely preventable conditions including malnutrition, pneumonia and hypothermia at the al-Hol camp between December 2018 and September 2019. The number of children under age five who have died at the camp has doubled since March. Young boys are particularly at risk of unaddressed health concerns: the decision of camp authorities to separate adolescent boys from their mothers has reportedly caused many women to avoid seeking medical care for their male children for fear of having them taken away. Children in the camps are also at risk of sexual exploitation. Aid officials have confirmed two cases of sexual abuse or rape of children by older boys.

The situation has become more urgent as a result of political developments in recent weeks. The US troop withdrawal from Syria and the subsequent Turkish incursion into the northeast has resulted in the resurgence of ISIS in the region, mass breakouts of ISIS detainees from Ayn Issa camp, and the weakened capacity of Kurdish forces to safely guard the thousands of detainees in their custody. The sudden surge of instability in the northeast has been matched by activities in the northwest, where more than 20 civilians — including 10 children — were killed in late November by a missile strike fired by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on a camp for displaced people.

Though the Turkish military offensive has substantially slowed child repatriations, as noted above some countries have nonetheless moved quietly forward with extraction operations. SDF camp authorities have said that they remain willing to assist with repatriations and are prepared to drive detainees to the Semalka border crossing with northern Iraq, indicating that the necessary channels and routes on the ground remain operational.

Canada’s position towards the children of ISIS members is among the most hardline of all Western countries. Yet it does not appear that this position can be defended on logistical or security grounds, nor does the possibility of public backlash seem to present a major issue: in fact, a recent survey found that six in 10 Canadians “supported or somewhat supported” bringing orphaned Canadian children home from Syria. Clearly, it is high time for Ottawa to act. Bring the children home.