Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is refusing to commit to repatriating dozens of Canadian citizens, including children, detained in dire conditions in Syria, as a leading human rights group calls on the government to bring them home.

At least 47 Canadians including eight men, 13 women and 26 children are detained in Kurdish-run camps and prisons in northeast Syria because of their alleged ties to the Islamic State terrorist group, according a report from Human Rights Watch released Monday.

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Mr. Trudeau was repeatedly asked what his government is willing to do for the Canadians trapped in Syria. He said that while Canada is trying to provide consular services to its citizens, the government’s priority is the safety and security of Canadian diplomats, who would likely need to enter northeast Syria to help with any repatriation efforts.

“We continue to engage in consular cases around the world. The situation in Syria continues to be extremely dangerous,” Mr. Trudeau said.

“In this situation, the safety and security of our diplomatic personnel needs to be top of mind.”

The Human Rights Watch report, titled “Bring Me Back to Canada,” says the government is defying its international human rights obligations by abandoning Canadians in northeast Syria. It urges Canada to follow in the footsteps of at least 20 countries, including the United States, France and Germany, by repatriating its citizens.

Mr. Trudeau said the government is working through “intermediaries” to try to provide consular services to the Canadians in Syria, as Canada has no diplomatic presence there. However, he made no commitment to repatriate them.

“We recognize that we need to try and help all Canadians. It is more complicated when we talk about the fact that a number of these people could face charges when they return to Canada for their activities linked to terrorism,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The report highlights a dilemma for the Liberal government: risk political backlash by repatriating the Canadians, whom Conservatives and critics see as a security threat, or leave them to languish in Syria. The Conservatives have expressed concern about the low conviction rate for returning foreign fighters, which is complicated by the difficulty of collecting evidence from a war zone.

“That the Liberals have failed to present Canadians with a plan to deal with returning ISIS terrorists should be concerning to all Canadians,” Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said in a statement Monday.

The report details the conditions in which Canadians are being held in Syria. Detained men and boys live in makeshift prisons where food is scarce and overcrowding forces many to sleep shoulder to shoulder. Women and girls live in locked camps, where wild dogs skulk the grounds and tents collapse in strong winds or flood with sewage.

It also summarizes the cases of some of the Canadians, including 47-year-old Kimberly Polman, a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen who travelled to Syria five years ago to marry an Islamic State fighter and become a nurse for the terrorist group. Ms. Polman’s sister spoke to The Globe and Mail but is not being named because she fears repercussions for her family.

The sister said Ms. Polman is living in a tent in Roj camp, where she suffers from hepatitis, a kidney infection and broken teeth. She said she has been in touch with Global Affairs Canada to advocate for Ms. Polman but the government hasn’t offered much help.

“They still don’t fully acknowledge that she’s there because to do so I guess would mean that they have some kind of responsibility, which they don’t want to assume,” Ms. Polman’s sister said. “I do fear for her life.”

Despite the difficult circumstances, NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said Canada should make every effort to repatriate the Canadians from Syria.

“They cannot be abandoned indefinitely in these deplorable and dangerous conditions of arbitrary detention.”