The youngest, most unwell and most vulnerable of the Australian children currently held in squalid Syrian detention camps will be the first ones repatriated to Australia. But some of their mothers could face arrest – and potential charges – upon return to the country.
The Australian government is currently implementing plans to repatriate about 60 Australian women and children – wives, sons and daughters of slain or jailed Islamic State combatants – who have been held for more than three years in the dangerous detention camps in north-east Syria.
The majority – nearly 40 – of the Australian cohort are children, and most of those are aged under six. Several were born in the camps and know no life outside them.
Winters in north-east Syria are bitterly cold. Most of the Australians live in crowded, uninsulated tents in Roj camp, which are regularly inundated by freezing rain and offer little protection from the wind and snow.
In previous winters, Australian children have contracted severe frostbite. In recent weeks, food and water supplies have been interrupted and the camps are volatile and unsafe. Many of the Australian children have poor physical and mental health, are malnourished, and some are suffering from untreated shrapnel wounds.
Australia’s first repatriation operation will prioritise between 20 and 30 people from the most vulnerable families, including those with very young or sick children and women whom the government believes were trafficked or coerced into Syria by their former husbands.
Subsequent repatriation missions will follow in coming months.
Australian officials visited the camps earlier this year to undertake identity and biometric testing. There will be further crosschecking conducted in Australia before any removals from Syria.
Women face uncertain return
The Guardian understands several women – likely less than half of the cohort – could face arrest on return to Australia.
Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at the Australian National University, said it was a critical point of international law that the women and children in question are Australian citizens and have a right to enter Australia.
“That the majority of those in the Syrian camps are children raises Australia’s obligations under the convention on the rights of the child and the obligations to protect those children in circumstances when it is possible to do so.”
Rothwell said all of the adults in the group were subject to Australian law and could possibly be prosecuted for engaging or preparing to engage in terrorist acts, or for having entered a proscribed area.
“Any charges relating to those matters could be brought upon the adults entering Australia where they could potentially face arrest on landing.”
Australian federal police commissioner Reece Kershaw said police “may or may not have criminal charges against some individuals”.
“If you commit any crimes against our federal criminal code or other codes, you should be held to account,’’ he told 2GB radio.
Sources with knowledge of the planned operation argue it is in Australia’s national security interests to remove the women and children from the dangerous and potentially radicalising environment of the Syrian camps as soon as practicable and to bring them into Australia under government supervision and control, given as citizens they would ultimately have the right to return anyway.
In 2019, the former government repatriated eight orphans, including a pregnant teenager, from the Syrian camps but, following that, refused to bring more of its nationals out, citing security concerns, both in undertaking the rescue mission and back in Australia from those nationals repatriated.
Despite Australia’s previous reluctance to bring its citizens home, the path out of the camp is well-established. Other countries, particularly European nations, have been consistently repatriating their citizens.
Most of the Australians are held in the Roj camp near the Iraq border. Those being brought out are likely to be taken from Syria to northern Iraq, and from there to a regional operating hub for final checks and welfare assessments.
Australia maintains Camp Baird at the al-Minhad airbase in the United Arab Emirates, which was used as a staging post and for temporary accommodation when military flights were evacuating refugees following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
The largely Kurdish, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has control of the Syrian camps, and Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) – the de facto government of the region – have repeatedly urged foreign governments to repatriate their citizens.
Significantly, the US government, which maintains a large and visible military presence in the region, has also been urging allies to take their nationals home, and offered to assist. Nongovernment organisations are also well-established in the region, working in and around the camps.
It is unlikely the detainees will be brought to Australia immediately – their return could take months.
The shadow home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, said that in government she had opposed the return of the Australians, believing they may hold extremist views.
“I wasn’t prepared to risk Australian officials going into Syria … to get these people out.
“And I was concerned about the risk of these people coming back to Australia, because they may not have been deradicalised and could well have been radicalised,” she said.
The environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, said there would be “an ongoing expectation that our security and intelligence agencies will stay in contact with them and monitor them” once they are back in Australia.
The women in Roj camp have volunteered to be subject to government control orders when they are returned.
Shane Healey, a former Australian defence force special operations intelligence analyst and an expert on countering violent extremism, said reintegration would need to be “long, intensive and individualised”, but “done holistically, will have excellent results”.
“Australia has the capability and the expertise to support these children: it’s important that it is delivered intentionally which will achieve the best resources for all concerned.”
He rejects the term deradicalisation “because it is an extremist spectrum”.
“It’s not about being radical or their religion, it is their acceptance or use of violence … I worked for Youth Justice NSW where we were very successful in this. We targeted their willingness or acceptance to use violence in order to achieve their end state,” he told The Project.
Eight Australian human rights and aid agencies issued a joint statement welcoming the planned repatriation mission as a chance for Australian children and their mothers “to return home to their families and begin their recovery”.
“The first Australian children to be brought home, back in 2019, are reported to be now living normal lives in the community, attending school and playing sport. A decision to repatriate the remaining children would provide them with the same opportunities.”