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A new report from Human Rights Watch that urges Ottawa to repatriate its citizens summarizes the cases of some Canadians trapped in Syrian camps, including Jack Letts.

Handout

Canada is defying its international human rights obligations by abandoning dozens of Canadians detained in dire conditions in northeast Syria, says a new report from Human Rights Watch that urges Ottawa to repatriate its citizens.

At least 47 Canadians including eight men, 13 women and 26 children are detained in Kurdish-run camps and prisons because of their alleged ties to the Islamic State terrorist group, according to the report titled “Bring Me Back to Canada.” The report calls on the Canadian government to prioritize the repatriation of its citizens, shining a light on a years-long dilemma for the Trudeau government: risk political backlash by repatriating the Canadians, whom Conservatives and critics see as a security threat, or leave them to languish in Syria.

The report says the government breached its international human rights obligations by failing to assist Canadians who are facing “risks to life, torture, and inhumane and degrading treatment” in Syria and may be “unlawfully withholding or limiting effective consular assistance” from citizens.

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“These are Canadians who are very vulnerable, very marginalized, very at risk of being left behind and it’s clear again and again that the government is turning a blind eye to their plight, would rather wash its hands of the responsibility of these Canadians than take any kind of concrete action to bring them home,” said Farida Deif, Canada director at Human Rights Watch.

Global Affairs says the government is in contact with Kurdish authorities about the Canadians in northeast Syria and is particularly concerned about the children, but notes it is hard to help them because Canada has no diplomatic presence in the country.

“Given the security situation on the ground and the current COVID-19 context, the government of Canada’s ability to provide any kind of consular assistance in Syria remains extremely limited,” said Lynn Brunette, a Global Affairs spokesperson, in an e-mail.

Despite Canada’s security concerns, the report notes that at least 20 countries, including the United States, France and Germany, have repatriated their citizens.

Leah West, a lecturer at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said Canada’s obligations under international human rights agreements are not always clear. For instance, she said that while Canada has signed onto the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, there are jurisdictional issues with its application for Canadians trapped in northeast Syria, because the Kurdish administration is not a party to the covenant.

However, Ms. West said she believes Ottawa’s “lack of real efforts” to repatriate Canadian children breaches a provision in the Convention on the Rights of the Child that says that all decisions should be taken with the best interests of children in mind.

Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said his party is open to repatriating Canadian children under the age of 12 from Syria but the government should not help adults who travelled to the country and “decided to be an enemy of Canada.” He said Canada’s low conviction rate for returning foreign fighters is also a concern, as the returnees could pose a risk to the safety of Canadians if they are still radicalized. Part of the reason for the low conviction rate is the difficulty of collecting evidence from a war zone.

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Last year, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces rounded up and detained thousands of people who had lived under the Islamic State from more than 60 countries, including Canada, as its final holdout in the town of Baghouz crumbled. The foreigners were detained in two main camps, al-Hol and Roj, and also prisons across northeast Syria.

WHERE MOST OF THE FOREIGNERS INCLUDING CANADIANS ARE BEING HELD IN SYRIA

At least 47 Canadians – eight men, 13 women, and 26 children from 17 families – are detained in prisons and camps in northeastern Syria

Areas of control

As of June 24

Pro-government forces

Islamic State

Opposition forces

Turkish forces

Kurdish control

DETAIL

Raqqa

Aleppo

SYRIA

Damascus

0

150

KM

Camps where women and

children are being held

Prisons where men and

boys are being held

TURKEY

Roj camp

SYRIA

IRAQ

0

35

al-Hol camp

KM

Qamishli

Home to Chirkin prison

al-Hasakeh

Home to Ghweran and al-Shaddadi prisons

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: LIVEUAMAP; TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

WHERE MOST OF THE FOREIGNERS INCLUDING CANADIANS ARE BEING HELD IN SYRIA

At least 47 Canadians – eight men, 13 women, and 26 children from 17 families – are detained in prisons and camps in northeastern Syria

Areas of control

As of June 24

Pro-government forces

Islamic State

Opposition forces

Turkish forces

Kurdish control

DETAIL

Raqqa

Aleppo

SYRIA

Damascus

0

150

KM

Camps where women and

children are being held

Prisons where men and

boys are being held

TURKEY

Roj camp

SYRIA

IRAQ

al-Hol camp

0

35

KM

al-Hasakeh

Home to Ghweran and al-Shaddadi prisons

Qamishli

Home to Chirkin prison

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: LIVEUAMAP; TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

WHERE MOST OF THE FOREIGNERS INCLUDING CANADIANS ARE BEING HELD IN SYRIA

At least 47 Canadians – eight men, 13 women, and 26 children from 17 families – are detained in prisons and camps in northeastern Syria

Camps where women and children are being held

Prisons where men and boys are being held

TURKEY

Roj camp

Qamishli

Home to Chirkin prison

SYRIA

IRAQ

al-Hasakeh

Home to Ghweran and al-Shaddadi prisons

al-Hol camp

Areas of control

As of June 24

DETAIL

Aleppo

Raqqa

Pro-government forces

SYRIA

Opposition forces

Kurdish control

0

35

0

150

KM

Islamic State

Damascus

KM

Turkish forces

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: LIVEUAMAP; TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU

Letta Tayler, the lead author of the Human Rights Watch report, said the Canadians are facing “life threatening and inhumane” conditions in the camps.

Detained men and boys live in makeshift prisons where food is scarce and overcrowding forces many to sleep shoulder to shoulder. Women and girls live in locked camps, where tents collapse in strong winds or flood with sewage. Wild dogs skulk the grounds and drinking water is often contaminated.

At least 517 people, including 371 children, died in al-Hol last year, many from preventable diseases, according to the Kurdish Red Crescent. No Canadians are known to be among the dead.

The report summarizes the cases of some Canadians trapped in Syrian camps, including Jack Letts, who was a British-Canadian citizen until last year when Britain stripped his status over his alleged support for the Islamic State.

Mr. Letts’s parents, John Letts and Sally Lane, insist their son is innocent and that he went to the Middle East from Britain in 2014 to learn Arabic before ending up in Syria. They have been convicted by a British court of funding terrorism for sending their son money to help him escape. With no possibility of assistance from Britain now, the family is urging Canada to help get Jack out of Syria.

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“Every single second of every single day we have to imagine the torment that he is going through while knowing that his government is refusing to lift a finger to help him,” Ms. Lane told The Globe and Mail.

The government did not offer any comment on Mr. Letts’s case.

The report also describes the case of Amira, a five-year-old orphan who was found wandering alone along a road near Baghouz after her parents and siblings were killed in an airstrike last year.

When an NGO circulated a photo of Amira, her uncle in Canada recognized the girl as his niece. The uncle, who goes by the pseudonym “Karim” in the report, told Human Rights Watch he immediately contacted Global Affairs and begged them to bring Amira home, offering to adopt her.

After struggling to navigate the bureaucratic processes at Global Affairs and the Immigration department, he took matters into his own hands and travelled to northeast Syria in February in an attempt to rescue Amira.

“If I didn’t know her, I would have thought she was two years old. Her hair is really thin,” he said in the report, recounting a one-hour meeting he had with Amira in northeast Syria. “She looked like she weighed thirty-five pounds.”

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The report said the uncle was forced to leave Amira in Syria because there was no Canadian official on site to sign repatriation documents the Kurds required for her to leave.

A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s office said the government is in touch with Amira’s family, has confirmed she is Canadian and is “evaluating options” to help bring her home.

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