Monia Mazigh and Alex Neve are human-rights advocates who have campaigned on behalf of Canadians unjustly detained abroad for more than two decades.
Last month, two women and two children, all Canadian citizens, were repatriated to Canada from northeast Syria. Along with 40 other Canadians – 21 children, 11 women and eight men – they have endured years of human-rights abuses while detained in horrible conditions in the Roj and al-Hol camps in Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region.
Both women were arrested upon their arrival in Canada. One was charged with terrorism-related offences, while the other was released on bail in advance of an expected peace-bond hearing. Both face allegations of leaving Canada to live in the Islamic State.
The justice system will run its course in addressing these charges, but in the meantime, importantly, these women and children will no longer face the grim human-rights violations that have been their daily reality in Syrian detention camps. Meanwhile, the Canadian government released a statement announcing these repatriations, but remained notably vague about what it will do for the remaining Canadians still held in Syria.
We understand that the circumstances regarding these women’s stories, and the stories of those still detained in northeastern Syria, are complex. Allegations of terrorism or related offences do not often inspire public sympathy for those on the receiving end.
What we are particularly concerned with, however, is ensuring that the rule of law and respect for human rights remain paramount. We have campaigned on behalf of numerous Canadians unjustly detained abroad for more than 20 years. We welcome this encouraging step regarding Canadians detained in northeastern Syria, which will bring relief to their families. But we know that other families face continuing anguish and despair, left with no answers about what will happen to their daughters, sisters, sons and brothers.
No one deserves to be unjustly detained. Yet there are many past examples of individuals who have suffered unlawful detention because of a lack of action on the part of Canadian authorities.
Maher Arar, Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin are all Canadian citizens who, at various times in the past two decades, were tortured and detained in Syria while the Canadian government declined to bring them home. Abousfian Abdelrazik was abandoned and faced constant risk to his safety in Sudan while the Canadian government refused, for years, to issue him a passport. Omar Khadr endured a decade locked up at Guantanamo Bay while the government did nothing to extricate him from that human-rights nightmare.
We had hoped that such cases were of the past. We were wrong.
There has been no lack of pleas to Canada to bring its citizens home: In June, 2021, the House of Commons foreign affairs committee recommended the repatriation of Canadian citizens held in the Syrian camps.
In January of this year, the International Committee of the Red Cross declared: “What is happening in northeast Syria is not a sustainable solution. States must repatriate their own citizens.” And in June, a group of United Nations special rapporteurs reminded the Canadian government that the repatriation of its citizens “is the only international law-compliant response to the complex and precarious human-rights, humanitarian and security situation” in Syria. Even the U.S. State Department has called on its partners to “urgently repatriate their nationals and other detainees remaining in northeast Syria.” Notably, Canada did thank the United States for its assistance in last month’s repatriations.
Left with no prospect of help from their government, the families of some of the detained Canadians have launched a lawsuit against the Canadian government. Hearings in that case, initially scheduled for early November, have been postponed to December. Every day of delay is a day of unbearable agony for the families, and another day of inhumane detention for the men, women and children confined in the camps.
For years, families were bluntly told that the situation in northeast Syria was too dangerous for Canadian officials, who could not travel there safely to attend to the formalities needed to arrange repatriation. That remained Canada’s position even as a growing number of other governments were actively intervening to assist their citizens.
Recent developments make it clear that if it ever was too perilous, that is no longer the case, as at least three Canadian officials were on the ground to facilitate this repatriation.
With no clarity, we are left only to ponder whether these repatriations represent a change of policy. Is Canada now willing to protect its citizens, after abandoning them to years of human-rights violations? We need to hear clearly and immediately from the Canadian government that a new approach is under way and that all remaining Canadians detained in northeast Syria will be repatriated. Their families deserve more than ambiguity and silence.