The federal government has agreed to repatriate six Canadian women and 13 children who have spent years in northeast Syria, where they have been detained in camps for people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State.
The decision to allow the group to return marks a significant shift for the government, which for years has faced a political dilemma: Leave these Canadians to languish, or invite backlash at home by bringing back people who many believe pose a security risk because of their association with a terrorist group. Aid groups have long decried the dire conditions in the camps, but the government has still refused to repatriate its citizens in all but a handful of cases.
Lawrence Greenspon, an Ottawa lawyer, is representing the 19 Canadians in federal court, where he had been arguing for their return. Four other Canadians who are part of the court application, all of them men, are not covered by the agreement and will remain in Syria while the case proceeds.
“We’re just delighted. Families are overjoyed with the prospect of their family members coming back home,” Mr. Greenspon said in an interview. He said the government has agreed to a timeframe for their return, but that it is confidential.
In 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained thousands of people from more than 60 countries who were living among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s final holdout in the town of Baghouz crumbled. Foreigners, including Canadians, were taken to two camps, known as al-Hol and Roj, and to prisons across northeastern Syria.
The 19 people the government agreed to bring home are part of a larger group of a few dozen Canadians, including women and children, who remain in these camps. But the others are not part of the court application.
Human-rights groups and experts have urged the federal government to repatriate Canadians detained in northeast Syria for years. In 2020, Human Rights Watch published a report that said Canada was defying its international human-rights obligations by abandoning its citizens there.
For years, Global Affairs Canada has said that the government is in contact with Kurdish authorities about the Canadians. Although the federal department has expressed concern about the children in the camps, it has said helping them is difficult because Canada has no diplomatic presence in Syria.
Global Affairs Canada did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Mr. Greenspon said he believes the agreement reached Thursday bodes well for other Canadians detained in northeast Syria.
In October, federal officials brought home two other women who were in the camps, Oumaima Chouay and Kimberly Polman. Ms. Polman, who married an Islamic State member, was taken before a Justice of the Peace in B.C. to sign a peace bond. Mr. Greenspon is also representing Ms. Polman.
Ms. Chouay, who returned with two children who were born abroad, was arrested at the Montreal airport in October and is facing charges of leaving Canada to participate in terrorist group activity, participating in such activity, conspiracy and providing services for terrorist purposes. Since 2013, it has been an offence to leave or attempt to leave Canada to join terrorists. The RCMP said she has been under investigation since 2014, and that she had been detained in Syria since 2017.
Mr. Greenspon also represented the family of a five-year-old girl who has been identified only as Amira, and who returned to Canada from a detention camp in Syria in 2020.
The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment about the 19 Canadians who are returning to Canada.
“We’re going to keep going,” Mr. Greenspon said.
“Let’s get these 19 Canadian women and children home and then we’ll see what we can do, if anything, for the other Canadian women and children that are over there.”
Mr. Greenspon said he does not know what, if any, charges the women will face when they arrive.
“We know they’ve been sitting there for three or four years without charges, and without any process involved, and being arbitrarily and unlawfully detained. So bring them home, and if you have evidence, prosecute them here.”
Farida Deif, Human Rights Watch’s Canada director, said the agreement to repatriate the Canadians detained abroad is a “positive, important decision.” She said they had been abandoned for years.
“None of these Canadians have ever been charged with a crime. They’ve never been brought before a judge to review the legality of their detention and they’re in life-threatening and dire conditions, conditions the UN has said amount to torture, inhumane and degrading treatment,” she said, adding that the government needs to act urgently to bring all of the Canadians detained in Syria home.
With a report from the Canadian Press