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A woman and a child walk between tents at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, on March 3, 2021.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Human Rights Watch says it is “horrific” that Canada prevented a mother from accompanying her young child who was recently repatriated from a detention camp in northeastern Syria.

Farida Deif, the Canada director of Human Rights Watch, said the four-year-old girl was living in a Kurdish-run camp in northeastern Syria and travelled to Canada over the weekend. She said her repatriation was facilitated by the girl’s aunt, who was assisted by Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat. The girl’s mother was not allowed to leave. Ms. Deif said Human Rights Watch has been in contact with the mother and “her emotions are still really high.”

“She knows that this is the best thing for her daughter’s future … but she doesn’t understand why families have to be separated,” Ms. Deif said.

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In 2019, 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. It has been a long and complicated dilemma for the Trudeau government – risking political backlash for repatriating possible IS sympathizers or leaving Canadians to languish in dire conditions.

Human Rights Watch has been urging Canada to repatriate its citizens, saying in a report last year that Ottawa is defying its international obligations by abandoning them. The organization said more than 40 Canadians, over half of which are children, are detained because of their alleged ties to the terrorist group.

Patricia Skinner, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said the Canadian government was not involved in securing the child’s exit from northeastern Syria, but “provided consular assistance to facilitate the child’s travel from Iraq to Canada.”

Ms. Skinner said given the security situation, the government’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria remains extremely limited. She said Canadian consular officials are engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities to seek information on Canadians in their custody. Ms. Skinner said because of provisions of the Privacy Act, no further information can be disclosed.

Ms. Deif said Human Rights Watch has made clear to Ottawa that children should not be separated from their mothers or guardians unless there is evidence that it would be in the best interest of the child.

“Canada is meant to be a global champion on the rights of children … and so the government knows full well its obligation to preserve family unity,” Ms. Deif said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked to comment on the situation during a news conference in Montreal. His response was brief and largely repeated the government statement that was released over the weekend.

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“This story was one where the family themselves took the initiative to bring the daughter to Canada. The mother remains in Syria. She’s now with, I believe, an aunt or a relative. The federal government facilitated the travel documents, but this was something that was done by the family involved,” he said.

Mr. Galbraith told CTV News that the woman who decided to give up her child “was a very good mother.” “The evidence of that is that she put her child first and realized that it would be a disaster growing up in a prison camp in Syria and instead she gave the child a future,” he told CTV.

The four-year-old girl is the second Canadian detained in northeastern Syria that Ottawa has agreed to repatriate.

In October, the government agreed to allow a five-year-old orphan who was been identified as Amira to come home. At the time, Mr. Trudeau said it was an exceptional case.

Garnett Genuis, Conservative critic for international development and human rights, said Canadians who join terrorist groups should be prosecuted “but that Canadian children should never be punished, mistreated or neglected simply because of the actions of others.” He said the Liberals are ignoring the plight of Canadian children detained in Syria and has a responsibility to bring the children home.

Ms. Deif said Ottawa’s decision to repatriate the four year old without her mother sends a message to all the other mothers in the camps that they don’t have any hope of leaving unless they relinquish custody of their children. Meanwhile, she said, children in the camps are dying of preventable diseases.

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