Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the federal government is repatriating an orphan who was detained in a camp in northeast Syria, but he has no plans to do the same for other Canadians.
A 5-year-old girl who has been identified only as Amira had been held at al-Hol camp in Syria after her parents and siblings were killed. Her uncle in Toronto recognized her in photographs circulated by a non-governmental organization, and urged the government to bring her home, later filing a legal action that said Ottawa violated the girl’s rights by failing to do so.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said late on Monday that the plane bringing Amira home had landed in Canada to refuel, and then she would be on her way to her final destination.
With the girl’s departure, 46 Canadians, including 26 children, remain in Kurdish-run camps and prisons, according to Human Rights Watch, which said in a June report that Canada is defying its international human rights obligations by abandoning them.
Last year, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained thousands of people from more than 60 countries, including Canada, who had lived among Islamic State terrorists when the group’s final holdout in the town of Baghouz crumbled. Foreigners were detained in two camps, al-Hol and Roj, and prisons across northeast Syria.
“I think that we have to recognize that this particular situation was an exceptional case of an orphan who no longer had any close family," Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Monday. “That is why we have worked very hard over the past months to bring her to Canada.”
When asked why the government was not repatriating other Canadians detained in Syria, Mr. Trudeau reiterated in French that this was an exceptional case involving months of work and there is no plan to do the same for others.
In the Human Rights Watch report, Amira’s uncle said he begged Global Affairs to bring the girl home, offering to adopt her. After struggling to navigate the bureaucratic processes, he travelled to northeast Syria in an attempt to rescue her. He told Human Rights Watch that her hair was thin and she appeared to weigh 35 pounds. The report said he was forced to leave Amira in Syria because no Canadian official was on site to sign repatriation documents the Kurds required for her to leave.
Farida Deif, Canada director of Human Rights Watch, said while it’s a welcomed step that Canada is finally returning a 5-year-old orphan detained for nearly two years, it does not absolve the government of its responsibility to repatriate the remaining nationals.
Lawrence Greenspon, an Ottawa-based lawyer, filed an application in Federal Court in July on behalf of Amira. It alleged the government failed or refused to issue emergency travel documents for Amira, or failed or refused to formally request her repatriation, and failed to send a Canadian representative to facilitate her return.
Mr. Greenspon said he was choked up and filled with glee when he learned Amira was coming home. He said he received a call on Sunday from senior counsel at Global Affairs Canada, who said she was with a Canadian consular official and on her way home.
While he will not be proceeding in court on behalf of Amira, he represents other Canadian families who have relatives detained in Syria. The two main obstacles that Ottawa previously cited as preventing Amira’s repatriation, he said, were security in the region and the fact that Canada does not have consular relations with Syria.
“Both of those obstacles appear to have been overcome, because Amira is on her way home,” he said.
Leah West, a lecturer at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said bringing Amira to Canada proves the government’s reasons for not repatriating its citizens are not insurmountable.
“I would hope that the government would do what it did for every other Canadian that was stuck around the world in the face of a pandemic and bring Canadians home,” she said, adding it comes down to political will. “They’ve proven that where that will exists, they can make it happen.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he called on Mr. Trudeau more than a year ago to reunite children like Amira with their families in Canada.
“Finally, we are seeing some action from this Liberal government. We want to see a plan to reunite other Canadian children who are trapped in Syrian camps through no fault of their own with their families here in Canada,” Mr. O’Toole said.
Mr. O’Toole said Conservatives believe Canadians who joined the Islamic State need to be held accountable for their actions and be prosecuted, but compassion is needed for Canadian children.
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