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Politics Government receives five requests for travel docs for children of Canadians trapped in Syria

The government has received requests for travel documents for five children of Canadian citizens whom experts say travelled to war-torn Syria to join the Islamic State and now want to come home.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada declined to say whether the Canadian parents of the children had onetime links to the Islamic State in Syria or what kind of travel documents were requested. However, extremism experts who communicate regularly with the Canadians in Syria confirmed the applications were for passports for five of 18 Canadian children overall trapped in the country.

“There is definitely movement on the ground in Canada with families moving to bring their kids back. Lawyers have been involved for some time, and these five kids, who are among the overall 18, will be the first of what is hopefully a broader effort to bring these children home,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who researches extremism.

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The government has come under renewed pressure to repatriate the Canadian children, most of whom were born to Canadian women who travelled there to join the Islamic State. Mr. Amarasingam said the oldest child is 13, with the majority under 5; he has also identified nine Canadian women and six Canadian men trapped in two Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria.

In an interview Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said that while the stories about children stuck in Syrian camps are “heart-rending,” the government can’t lose sight of the Canadian parents’ actions.

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale speaks at press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 16, 2019.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

“That is the grossly irresponsible, dangerous and entirely reprehensible behaviour of parents and families that led to their kids being in such circumstances,” Mr. Goodale said.

Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism (FAVE), said none of the children have received a passport their families have requested. Ms. Bain, who has been in touch with families in both camps, said her organization has been assisting 33 Canadians, but that she knows of several more families who are detained.

“FAVE has helped a number of Canadian families request emergency travel documents for their children and grandchildren. … The government has yet to answer any of our requests,” she said.

Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for the Immigration department, said the government is not aware of any Canadian passports or travel documents that have been issued to children of Canadian citizens who travelled to join the Islamic State and who are now unable to leave Syria. Canada has no diplomatic presence in Syria so applicants would have to travel to a mission or embassy in a neighbouring country to obtain a passport.

“Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in any part of Syria is extremely limited,” Ms. Caron said in an e-mail.

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Ms. Bain at FAVE said she is aware generally of children under the age of 5 needing help, including a four-year-old orphan, a newborn, a one-year-old who had been suffering from severe asthma attacks, “and a host of other small children with respiratory and other medical problems, including malnutrition.”

“Mothers in the camps have contacted FAVE to describe the horrors their children are facing,” she said, noting they report a lack of clean water, food and medicine. “If Canada doesn’t act immediately to bring these families home, I fear there could well be a loss of young life.”

Canadian families have been trying to get passports for their relatives in the camps for more than a year.

Last year, a senior Canadian government source, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Globe and Mail that officials from Canada’s Beirut embassy met with Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, where they filled out passport application forms for Canadians trapped in neighbouring Syria.

Speaking to The Globe this week, the source said that as far as they were aware, the Canadians never got the passports because they were unable to get to an embassy to fill out the required immigration paperwork.

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