Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says Canada has no legal responsibility to repatriate Canadian citizens detained by Kurdish forces in Syria, despite pleas from their families to help get them out of the war zone.
Mr. Goodale said on Tuesday that Canada will not put its officials at risk by sending them into Syria to repatriate Canadians who chose to travel there and join terrorist organizations. At a separate meeting on Tuesday with officials of the Department of Global Affairs, advocates and families of the detained Canadians urged the federal government to help their family members in Syria.
“There is no legal obligation on the government of Canada to repatriate in these circumstances. No offer of repatriation has been made,” Mr. Goodale told reporters following a cabinet meeting.
“When you leave the comfortable confines of Canadian democracy and travel half way around the world to go into a war zone and associate yourself with terrorism, then you need to bear the consequences of that behaviour.”
Alexandra Bain is the director of Families Against Violent Extremism (FAVE), a non-profit organization that works with families of Canadians who have joined extremist groups. She said she is aware of nine Canadian families – mostly headed by single parents – currently held by the Kurdish authorities in Syria, including more than 10 children. FAVE met with senior officials at Global Affairs on Tuesday afternoon, where it offered to work with the government to help bring the detainees back to Canada.
“FAVE and Reprieve, together with these nine Canadian families, are today asking the Canadian government to immediately repatriate all of these citizens to Canada and we are willing to help them in that effort,” Ms. Bain told a news conference.
Reprieve is a London-based non-profit group that provides legal representation to people detained without due process in secretive prisons around the world. Ms. Bain said FAVE and Reprieve have experience rescuing people from Syria, pointing to a joint effort to co-ordinate the release of American citizen, Samantha Elhassani, and her four children, in August.
Ms. Bain said Reprieve’s founder, Clive Stafford Smith, is prepared to go into Syria, find the Canadians and bring them home if the government isn’t willing to help. In that case, she urged the government to provide emergency travel documents so the Canadians can leave the region.
John Letts, the father of 22-year-old Jack Letts, a Canadian-British dual citizen detained by the Kurds in Syria, joined Ms. Bain during the meeting with Global Affairs officials.
Mr. Letts has always maintained that his son, who converted to Islam as a teenager while living in Britain, never supported the Islamic State. Rather, he says Jack went to Syria because he felt he had a duty to help other Muslims affected by the conflict. He says his son is innocent and deserves the Canadian government’s help.
“We don’t live in the Wild West, where people are lynched without trial, or medieval England, where witches were burned at the stake. We’re Canadians and we’re better than this,” Mr. Letts said during the news conference on Tuesday.
“I need your help to save my son’s life.”
Ms. Bain and Mr. Letts are concerned the fate of the detained Canadians could soon worsen, as they have heard that the Kurds are considering handing the prisoners over to the Islamic State or the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both groups are notorious for their brutal treatment of anyone who opposes them.
Mr. Letts and his wife, Sally Lane, were charged in 2016 with funding terrorism in Britain after they tried to send money to their son to help him escape Syria – something they claim the police gave them permission to do.