Lawsuit filed to repatriate Canadians from northeast Syria
A group of Canadian families have launched a joint lawsuit to force the Canadian government to repatriate their relatives, who are currently stranded in detention centres and prisons in northeast Syria.
The case, filed on Monday, represents 11 Canadian families and seeks to secure the repatriation of 26 Canadians from northeast Syria.
Canada has generally resisted efforts to return its citizens from Syria, with the exception of one-off cases, such as the repatriation of a five-year old orphan in 2020.
The lawyer presenting the case, Lawrence Greenspon, told The New Arab that the families want the Canadian government to officially request the repatriation of its citizens, provide them with the proper documentation for travel, and authorize an official state representative to facilitate their return.
Among the 26 Canadians who are seeking repatriation are 15 Canadian children, four men and seven women held in various camps and prisons in northeast Syria. The youngest of them is two-years-old, the oldest 48.
Some of the men and women are suspected to have gone to Syria to join the Islamic State group at the time of its so-called caliphate. They and their children have been held there since the defeat of the caliphate by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in March 2019.
Since then, tens of thousands of detainees have been held in overcrowded camps and makeshift prisons, who were either living under IS rule at the time of its defeat or are suspected of being fighters themselves.
Greenspon insisted on anonymity for the families and their relatives held in Syria for fear that the latter could face repercussions from other detainees and local authorities.
"The families are both steadfast and desperate," Greenspon said.
"On almost a daily basis I receive information about the deteriorating health of children and women in the camps and men that are prisons. Their lives are at stake." Greenspon said.
Farida Deif, the Canada director of Human Rights Watch, said that one of the detainees, Kimberly Polman, is at risk of death due to internal bleeding and hepatitis.
According to Save The Children, a total of 40,000 children from 60 different countries are living in dire conditions in detention camps in northeast Syria. In 2021 alone, 62 children died in these camps.
The lawsuit asserts that because the AANES has called for governments to take back their citizens, "it is the inaction of the Canadian government that currently prevents Canadians detained by the SDF from being repatriated".
The Canadian government has said in the past that because it does not have diplomatic representation in northeast Syria, it is unable to provide assistance in repatriating citizens held in the territory.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told The New Arab that the government is “aware” of Canadians detained in northeast Syria and “is particularly concerned with cases of Canadian children in the region.” However, “given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited.”
The spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Other states make similar arguments, but critics contend that the territory is accessible and local authorities are willing to facilitate repatriation if the political will is there.
The issue of repatriation of IS suspects and their children is a hot-button issue not just in Canada but across the world. In Finland, the attempts of its foreign minister to repatriate Finnish children from Syria in 2019 led for calls for the minister to be investigated.
Families face huge public stigma at home and constituencies have generally been suspicious of repatriating anyone, including children, who are associated with the IS.
Greenspon said that he hopes the case will be settled in a matter of weeks, but suspects the process might end up taking months.
This article was updated to include a statement from Global Affairs Canada.