Ottawa will repatriate Canadian children, but not their foreign mothers held in Syrian detention camps

The Globe and Mail

Janice Dickson The Globe and Mail February 7, 2023

Ottawa has offered to repatriate Canadian children held in detention camps in northeast Syria, but their foreign mothers are being told they can’t come to Canada because they are not citizens.

Four mothers and their Canadian children are held in a Kurdish-run camp for those with suspected ties to the Islamic State. Their husbands are elsewhere: two are in prisons in Syria, one is in jail in the United States and one is dead. The fate of their children, who have Canadian citizenship through their fathers, has been the focus of human-rights organizations and lawyers seeking their return to Canada.

“We are happy to advise that all four women are being provided advice and assistance relative to their individualized needs,” said Yoav Niv, a Calgary-based lawyer. He is not representing the women but has been working on co-ordination and logistics alongside Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism, a Canadian non-profit.

“Arranging assistance given the timing has been a tremendous project. The legal issues are complex and multifaceted. Dr. Alexandra Bain was instrumental in the process. We hope that Canada can facilitate the temporary resident permit application processes expeditiously,” he said.

Last month, the federal government agreed to repatriate six Canadian women and 13 children who spent years detained in these camps in northeast Syria. Then, a federal court justice ruled the government had to also repatriate four Canadian men being held in prisons there. But there are a number of other Canadians stuck there, who were not part of the initial court application, including children.

In 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained thousands of people from more than 60 countries who were living among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s final holdout crumbled. Foreigners, including Canadians, were taken to camps and to prisons across northeastern Syria.

Ms. Bain said she hopes the four foreign mothers and their 10 children get on the same flight as the Canadians the government has already agreed to repatriate.

She said she heard from three women directly who told her Canadian officials told them they had just over a week to decide whether they wanted the government to repatriate their children – and if they stick to that timeline, the deadline is Tuesday.

“That’s pretty harsh. So that’s what we’ve been working on all week in an attempt to get those women on the plane,” she said.

Global Affairs Canada would not answer questions about the proposal to separate mothers from their children, saying only that the government is reviewing the federal court’s decision from a few weeks ago.

One woman who has been detained in a camp known as Roj, told The Globe and Mail she was contacted by a Canadian official who offered to repatriate her children – but not her. The Globe is not naming her because she fears for her safety. The father of her three young children is Canadian, she said, and imprisoned in Syria.

She said that on Jan. 26 she was brought to an intelligence office for a video call with a Global Affairs official who asked if she had considered Canada’s offer to repatriate her children, excluding her, because she’s not Canadian.

She said she argued with the official that separating children from their mothers goes against the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Canada is a signatory. She said the official couldn’t guarantee she would ever be able to communicate with her children again if they are repatriated, and that it depended on the foster family they are placed with.

The 36-year-old mother said she told the official her kids would be destroyed and would “live the rest of their life thinking their mother abandoned them.”

The woman said her three young children completely rely on her, especially her eldest son who is non-verbal autistic, and who she said would suffer without her.

She said it has been particularly challenging for this son. She said his teeth are rotten and he’s malnourished because of an infection in his digestive system. He also requires surgery to treat carotid artery stenosis, she said. She said she cannot return home to her country of birth because of its grave human-rights record.

Asiya Hirji, the supervising lawyer of the refugee and immigration division at Downtown Legal Services, the University of Toronto’s legal-aid clinic, is representing this mother.

She said the government had also offered to repatriate the woman’s children on a separate occasion, when it was indicated the offer would not be extended to her.

Ms. Hirji is also representing another mother in the detention camp.

Both of the women are concerned about their children, Ms. Hirji said, adding that they itemized the issues with their children’s health and “they’re stark.” Her other client told her that she was badly abused in front of her children and they are suffering as a result.

“These children are ultimately the ones who are being asked to pay the price. Haven’t they been through enough?” she said.

Huda Mukbil, a national security expert, said all Canadians in the region need to be repatriated, saying that is what Canada’s allies expect.

“It should have happened earlier, but it needs to happen now,” she said. Ms. Mukbil said when it comes to separating mothers from their children, the government needs to consider this as a human-rights issue.

“There needs to be consideration on humanitarian grounds to provide a path for these individuals to come to Canada with their children. … Separating young children from their mothers is so traumatic for children.”