A group of Australian mothers and children held in a detention camp in Syria are taking legal action against the Australian government in an attempt to compel their repatriation. Seventeen Australian women and nine children, who are either wives, widows, or children of deceased or imprisoned Islamic State fighters, will file a writ of habeas corpus in the federal court on Monday morning. They argue that Australia has effective control over their detention and possesses the power to bring them back home.
All members of the group are Australian citizens who maintain that they have a legal right to return to their home country. Many of them have been held in squalid and violent detention camps for over four years, where children suffer from untreated shrapnel wounds, malnourishment, and severe psychological illnesses. Some children were born in the camp and have never experienced life outside its confines.
Save the Children Australia, acting as the litigation guardian in the case, stated that the legal action was a last resort. The organization has been left with no choice but to take the Australian government to court, formally requesting immediate repatriation of its citizens based on moral and legal obligations.
Mat Tinkler, the chief executive of Save the Children Australia, described the legal action as a regretful but resolute measure driven by fear, suffering, frustration, and despair. He highlighted that the hopes raised by the previous successful repatriations in 2019 and 2022 have now turned into bitter despair among those left behind.
The case also brings attention to the plight of several adolescent Australian boys who, upon reaching 11 or 12 years of age, are often separated from their families by the Kurdish forces running the Roj camp. These boys are taken to adult prisons due to concerns over potential radicalization, despite warnings from the United Nations about the risks they face, including forced disappearance, exploitation, abuse, and torture.
The 26 Australians involved in the legal challenge, out of the larger Australian contingent in the Roj camp, will lodge the writ of habeas corpus in the federal court in Melbourne. Their argument will center around the arbitrary nature of their detention and Australia’s effective control over their continued confinement, as evidenced by the successful repatriation missions previously undertaken.
Similar habeas corpus cases have been pursued in Europe and the UK, with varying degrees of success. Earlier this year, a Canadian court ruled that the Canadian government was obligated to take steps to repatriate its citizens from Syrian camps.
None of the Australian women or children currently face charges in any country, although some may be subject to legal proceedings upon their return to Australia. The court challenge will argue that their ongoing detention is arbitrary and therefore unlawful.
If the federal court writ proceeds to a hearing, it could compel the government to justify its decision not to repatriate its citizens. During the previous repatriation missions, the Australian government considered factors such as security, community, and welfare before making the decision to repatriate individuals.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who oversee the camp, are eager to empty the Roj camp of foreign nationals and are willing to assist with repatriation efforts. Several other countries, including the United States, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have already safely repatriated numerous children and their mothers from similar camps.
The legal action initiated by the Australian mothers and children sheds light on the urgent need to address their plight and find a solution to repatriate them, considering the humanitarian and legal obligations involved.