Who are the Canadians detained in camps in Syria? | Syria: the spiral of war

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Who are the Canadians detained in camps in Syria? | Syria: the spiral of war

At least 43 Canadians, including 30 children, seven women and six men, are being held in camps in northeastern Syria, an autonomous region administered by Kurdish forces who fought the Islamic State armed group, according to Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch.

View of al-Hol camp, controlled by Kurdish fighters in Syrian territory.

A federal court last week ordered the repatriation of 23 Canadians — six women, 13 children and four men — detained for years in camps in northeastern Syria. How did they end up there? How many others are being held there? In what conditions do they live?

Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) deputy director for crisis and conflict, met with several of these Canadians between June 2019 and May 2022 in northeast Syria, an autonomous region run by the Syrian Democratic Forces ( SDF), an alliance dominated by Kurdish fighters who fought against the armed group Islamic State (IS).

Many of them live in the camps of al- Roj and al-Hol, where hundreds of adults and children died due to fighting in the area, lack of medical care or unsanitary conditions.

< p class="e-p">According to her, there are at least 43 Canadians, or 30 children, seven women and six men, now detained in these camps. Among them, 23 must be repatriated within a reasonable time, according to a Federal Court ruling, while the fate of the remaining 20, including 17 children, is still unknown.

According to Ms. Tayler, ten of those children were born to Canadian fathers – most of whom are missing – and foreign mothers. These mothers have been informed that their children could be accepted for possible repatriation but that they will not be able to accompany them, says the researcher. This is an unreasonable offer. […] In the eyes of international law, family reunification is paramount. This must be considered on a case-by-case basis […] to avoid exposing these children to additional trauma.

Canadian children and their mothers are being held in al-Roj camp in northeast Syria.

The majority of Canadians detained in northeast Syria are arrived in the war-torn country from 2014. At that time, ISIS's influence in Syria and Iraq was growing, attracting unprecedented numbers of foreigners from more than a hundred countries. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 25,000 foreign fighters joined this jihadist group, according to a UN report.

Among the Canadian nationals who will be repatriated under a Federal Court ruling is Jack Letts, a British-Canadian who has been detained for four years in a prison in northern Syria. A convert to Islam, Mr Letts, who grew up in Oxford, UK, joined IS fighters in Iraq and Syria in 2014 before his capture by a Kurdish militia.

There were several reasons why these Canadians traveled to northeastern Syria, but many of them were part of this influx of foreigners from all over the world to join what was called the "caliphate" of the Islamic State, says Ms. Tayler.

Some saw it as a utopia; others wanted revenge for the mistreatment of Muslims, for example at Guantanamo; some were trying to fight Bashar Al-Assad's regime and ended up in the ranks of ISIS, while still others sought to treat war-wounded or even save children…, she says.

“It should be remembered that there are victims among those who joined ISIS. All children, regardless of age, are victims and some women say they were tricked or forced by their husbands to join this extremist group. They could be victims of trafficking. »

— Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Crisis and Conflict

Le camp d'al -Roj, in northeast Syria, where 2,660 people, including Canadians, are being held.

Ms. Tayler also recalls that none of the Canadians detained in northeastern Syria have been tried or convicted. The Federal Court also indicates in its judgment that the government has provided no evidence demonstrating the involvement of these Canadians in terrorist activities.

Since the disappearance, in 2019, of the caliphate created by ISIS, the repatriation of wives and children of jihadists who joined ISIS is a very delicate issue in many countries.

According to the UN, the dilapidated and overcrowded al-Hol camp is home to around 56,000 relatives of jihadists captured or who have fled the offensives against IS, including 10,000 foreigners, displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees.

“All the Canadians I spoke to in the al- Hol and d'al-Roj want only one thing: to return to Canada. They are ready to serve a prison sentence there if that facilitates their repatriation. »

— Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Crisis and Conflict

Women tell me their children are devastated, they want to give them a better life, says Ms. Tayler . I don't know if they committed any serious crimes while still living under ISIS rule, but they seemed sincere to me in their wish to return home for the sake of the children.

The researcher claims to have seen sick Canadian children in the camps, deprived of medical care. I myself have seen children with asthma, unable to breathe, she says. These children are victims of collective punishment.

“It is morally important for Canada to repatriate these children and not leave them to suffer in a hellish desert which is all the more a war zone regularly targeted by Turkish bombardments. The living conditions there are so terrifying that they can be considered torture.

— Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Crisis and Conflict

According to Ms. Tayler, Canada has a duty to try these nationals individually to determine s 'they are victims or perpetrators.

It is unclear whether the 23 Canadian nationals ordered to be repatriated by the Federal Court will face possible prosecution upon their return to Canadian territory. Three months ago, two Canadian women detained in Syria were repatriated with their children and one of them was arrested before being granted bail. In 2020, Ottawa allowed the return of a five-year-old orphan girl after her uncle sued the Canadian government.

With information from Agence France-Presse

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