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People walk in the marketplace at al-Hol camp in Hasakeh province, Syria, on May 1, 2021.Baderkhan Ahmad/The Associated Press

Fourteen Canadian women and children, who for years had been held in detention camps in northeast Syria for people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State, are now back in Canada. They are the first large group of Canadian detainees from the region to be repatriated, an outcome they battled with the federal government in court to achieve. But many more remain in Syria, their fates still uncertain.

There were supposed to be 19 people on the group’s flight. The missing five did not show up at a designated meeting point, according to Lawrence Greenspon, a lawyer for the detainees. All 19 – six women and 13 children – were part of a court application that sought their admission to Canada. The government agreed in January to bring them here.

The Canadians who did make the flight landed in Montreal on Thursday, where two women were arrested. Mr. Greenspon said the Crown is seeking terrorist peace bonds that would place strict conditions on them.

The decision to allow the group to return marked a considerable shift for the government, which had for years refused to repatriate Canadians detained in northeast Syria. Human-rights groups have warned against leaving people to languish in dire conditions there – but repatriating them invites political backlash. Critics believe the detainees pose a security risk, because of their alleged association with a terrorist group.

Ottawa has repatriated a few other detainees from Syria over the years, including two women in October. More than a dozen other Canadians remain in Syria, among them four men the Federal Court ordered repatriated in January. The government has appealed that decision.

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 northeast Syria.

Mr. Greenspon said his clients are looking forward to reuniting with relatives. “The reunions with those families are imminent. So, they are all delighted,” he said.

He said the detainees who didn’t make it to the meeting point were two women and three children, and that attempts were made to locate them. He said he is confident that Global Affairs Canada will make its best effort to bring them home as agreed.

Opinion: Canadian detainees in Syria should be brought home immediately

Mr. Greenspon also represents a Quebec woman who is still detained in Syria with her six children. They were not part of the court agreement in January. He said Global Affairs Canada told him the woman had been given the option to send her children to Canada, but that the government would not allow her to make the trip with them because an assessment of her was not complete.

In Montreal on Thursday, reporters asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau why the Quebec woman and her children were not aboard the flight. Mr. Trudeau said Canada is serious about its responsibility to protect Canadians in difficult situations overseas. But he said the government must also “make sure we’re doing everything necessary to keep Canadians safe here at home.” He said he would not comment further, for operational reasons.

Global Affairs Canada and Public Safety Canada issued a joint statement saying that like-minded countries are taking steps to repatriate their citizens from northeast Syria. They thanked the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the United States for assisting with the operation.

“The safety and security of Canadians, both at home and abroad, is our utmost priority. Amidst reports of deteriorating conditions in the camps in northeastern Syria, we have been particularly concerned about the health and well-being of Canadian children,” the two departments said.

“We reiterate that it is a serious criminal offence for anyone to leave Canada to knowingly support a terrorist group and those who engage in these activities will face the full force of Canadian law.”

Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said in a statement that the U.S. welcomes Canada’s repatriation effort, and is grateful to the Syrian Democratic Forces for their work addressing the “complicated situation.” He said the U.S. stands ready to assist other nations in their repatriation efforts.

Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism, a Canadian non-profit, said she is delighted that 14 Canadians are coming home. But she pointed out that many were left behind.

“They are Canadians, and they have the right to return, they have the right to be protected from the abuse of their human rights throughout this process. And Canada so far hasn’t done a very good job,” she said.

Also in the camps are four foreign mothers who have Canadian children. Ottawa offered to repatriate the children earlier this year, but not their mothers, because they are not Canadian citizens.

Asiya Hirji, the supervising lawyer of the refugee and immigration division at Downtown Legal Services, the University of Toronto’s legal-aid clinic, is representing two of the mothers. She said she and the legal counsel for the other two mothers filed for temporary resident permits for the four women in February, which would allow them a time-limited pass into Canada to accompany their children. The government has not yet decided on the applications.

“We certainly remain hopeful, although I think hope is diminishing,” she said. “Ultimately, there are Canadian children that are not being brought home for one reason or another, and that is troubling at best.”

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