Family members of Canadians trapped in Syrian camps after the crumbling of the Islamic State are urging the federal government to bring them home, saying it is not fair to leave them overseas.
There are 33 Canadians stuck in northeastern Syria, including 18 children and nine women, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who researches extremism.
The federal government has come under pressure to repatriate Canadians who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State – some of whom had children while they were there – as other countries bring home their citizens with one-time links to the terrorist group.
In June, 12 French and two Dutch orphans of Islamic State fighters were repatriated from Syria, a French diplomatic source told Reuters. More recently, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government rescued the children and grandchildren of two dead Islamic State fighters from a Syrian camp. Belgium also brought back six children of Islamic State members.
The parents of two of the trapped Canadians spoke to The Globe and Mail about the conditions their daughter and son are facing and their fight to bring them home. They believe there is little political will to do so before the fall federal election.
The government is grappling with how to handle the return of Canadians who have travelled to Syria, including their prosecution for any crimes committed overseas and eventual reintegration into Canadian society. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has acknowledged that it is hard to find evidence from a foreign war zone that will stick in a Canadian courtroom, adding that Canada’s allies face the same challenge.
If the government does not have enough evidence to charge a Canadian returning from Syria, it may consider surveilling them – a costly and time-consuming effort for security agencies – to ensure they do not engage in terrorist or radicalization activities at home.
In the meantime, Global Affairs Canada has maintained that Syria is too dangerous to send officials to offer consular assistance.
Prof. Amarasingam, who has been to one of the camps, said the Kurdish forces who ran that camp prevented anyone from leaving, effectively making it a prison.
He said some Western women are particularly vulnerable and have been harassed for speaking critically of the Islamic State. He said they are often living on their own, trying to take care of infants while having little access to food or medicine.
“There are some rumours that some of the tents of Western women have been torched as a way of keeping people in check," he said.
The Alberta mother of a young woman who left Canada to travel overseas in 2015 with her Canadian husband said her daughter told her she was travelling to the Middle East, but did not mention going to Syria.
The Globe is not revealing the mother’s identity because she fears for her own safety at home and for her daughter’s safety in the camp.
The mother said her daughter later emerged in Syria’s Al Hawl camp after being separated from her husband, who has been detained by local authorities. It is unclear if he has been formally charged.
The mother does not know what her son-in-law did before he was detained in Syria, and later said she does not know where he or her daughter emerged from before they were separated.
She said she has rarely heard from her daughter over the past four years. She said the young woman has never mentioned the Islamic State and that she does not know how she ended up in Syria, adding that she was “taken and molded" before her departure.
She got a call in the spring from her daughter, who told her she was in a “bad situation.”
“I actually heard her voice from Al Hawl and it buckled my knees,” she said as she wept over the phone. She said her daughter was crying and told her she was down to 100 pounds, that her bones protruded from her chest and that large and painful varicose veins were emerging from her legs.
The mother said she understands there will likely be little movement on the file until after the federal election, but she said her daughter might not be able to wait that long.
“My daughter’s being held on foreign soil about half-dead and who knows if she’s going to make it to the fall election,” she said.
She said her daughter has asked why the government has not sent anybody to talk to her, adding that she doesn’t accept the government’s excuse that it’s too dangerous to visit the camp, as journalists have been there.
“I’m so sick of Canada, of the ‘Let them rot there.’ They don’t know my daughter. They don’t know her intentions. That kid had pure intentions when she left here. … Bring her back and let her answer for them, don’t abandon them.”
John Letts and his wife, Sally Lane, are also desperate to get their 23-year-old son, Jack Letts, out of a Kurdish-run jail in northern Syria. The couple lives in Oxford, England, but John has dual Canadian and British citizenship, which he passed on to Jack.
Mr. Letts said his family feels let down by Canada, especially in light of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s assertion that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” Mr. Trudeau made the comment in 2015 during an election debate about revoking citizenship for convicted terrorists.
“The Trudeau government’s been very good at presenting itself as a great liberal party that will stand up for Canadian values,” Mr. Letts said. “But I don’t think a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian any more.”
He has met with Global Affairs Canada to discuss his son’s case but says they have not been helpful.
Stefano Maron, a spokesman with Global Affairs Canada, said the government is “engaged in these cases and is providing assistance – to the limited extent possible.”
The Letts family has gone to great lengths to bring Jack home and has paid a high price for those efforts. They were recently found guilty of one charge of funding terrorism in the United Kingdom for sending Jack money to help him escape from Syria.
Last month the couple was sentenced to 15 months in prison, but the judge suspended the sentence for a year, saying they had lost sight of reality while trying to help their son.
Jack converted to Islam as a teenager and travelled to the Middle East in 2014 to learn Arabic. He ended up in Syria and, according to his father, married an Iraqi woman, with whom he had a child. Mr. Letts said his son told him he went to Syria to help other Muslims affected by the conflict.
His parents last communicated with him via text message in May, 2017.
In an interview with the BBC last year, Jack admitted to joining the Islamic State. Mr. Letts said his son appeared “stunned” during the interview and expressed concern that he had been threatened into making a false confession.
Mr. Letts said that while he loves Jack, he would condemn him if he did something wrong – but he insisted he is innocent.
“He’s got questions to answer. He should be arrested, detained – I have no problems with that. I want him to have a fair trial but I don’t want him to rot to death in a cell.”
With reports from the Associated Press and Reuters