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Al Roj and Al Hol have long been home to foreigners, including Canadians, seized from the last stronghold of an extremist group. Now, mothers and children are pressing for a way out

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A boy looks out at the expanse of tents at northeast Syria's Al Hol detention camp.Photography by Goran Tomasevic/The Globe and Mail

At Al Roj prison camp in northeast Syria, children walk through dusty rows of tents as aggressive dogs bark and bare their teeth. The children are of different nationalities, but are all here for the same reason: Their parents are among thousands of detained people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State.

It is the same at the larger, sprawling Al Hol prison camp, where conditions are crowded and dire. An estimated 60,000 people are living in the two prison camps, with women and children making up the majority.

These are the camps where foreigners, including Canadians, who lived among Islamic State terrorists have been held for years. In 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained thousands of people from around the world when the Islamic State’s final holdout in the town of Baghouz fell. They were taken to these camps, as well as prisons in northeast Syria.

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Children walk with dogs in Al Roj, one of two camps in northeast Syria where Islamic State suspects and their families are detained.

Since then, the federal government has largely refused to repatriate its citizens except for a handful of cases. Global Affairs Canada had maintained for years that because of the security situation on the ground, the government’s ability to provide consular assistance was extremely limited. In 2020, when the government repatriated an orphan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa had no plans to help others detained there.

At the time, critics pointed out that bringing the orphan to Canada showed the obstacles for repatriating Canadian citizens were not insurmountable, but that Ottawa lacked the political will to do so.

It is only recently that the federal government brought home a group of Canadians, marking the largest repatriation to date. In January, Ottawa agreed to repatriate six Canadian women and 13 children who are part of what’s known as the Bring Our Loved Ones Home litigation.

In April, 14 Canadian women and children who had been detained in the camps were repatriated as a result of an agreement the group’s lawyer Lawrence Greenspon reached on their behalf with Global Affairs. But five people were missing, because they failed to show up to a designated meeting spot.

Mr. Greenspon told The Globe in a recent interview that Global Affairs has confirmed they have been in contact with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the region’s governing body, and obtained assurances that Kurdish officials will facilitate the repatriation of the five Canadians. “It’s potentially very good news: It’s just really a matter of when and how soon,” Mr. Greenspon said.

Grantly Franklin, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, said it has received credible information about the location of the remaining women and children and Canada has taken steps to repatriate them. “Canadian consular officials remain actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities and international organizations operating in the region for information on, and assistance to, Canadian citizens,” he said.

“As long as conditions allow, we will continue this work,” he said, adding the government is aware of additional Canadian citizens in Syria and is particularly concerned with the cases of children.

At Al Hol, wives and daughters of Islamic State members go to a market. Many people came here after Kurdish-led forces captured thousands in the insurgent group's last stand at Baghouz.

At least 34 countries have repatriated or allowed to return home more than 6,000 foreigners, which includes nearly 4,000 to Iraq, since 2019, according to Human Rights Watch, which reported on the figures from the Administration of North and East Syria. In 2022, repatriations increased, with more than 3,100 people taken home as of Dec. 12. That number includes 17 to Australia, 58 to France, 12 to Germany and 40 to the Netherlands.

Still, more than a dozen other Canadians remain, including four men who are the subject of a court challenge. The Federal Court ordered the four to be repatriated in January, but that was overruled by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday, which said the federal government is not obligated under the law to repatriate the men.

Mr. Greenspon is also representing a Quebec woman and her six children who are not part of the Bring Our Loved Ones Home case. He said the woman’s security assessment still hasn’t been completed. A security assessment is necessary before being repatriated to Canada.

He said that the Crown is seeking peace bonds for four of the five women who have already been repatriated as part of the agreement.

Separately, Oumaima Chouay, who federal officials brought back last October, is facing charges. Ms. Chouay returned with two children who were born abroad and was arrested at the Montreal airport. She’s been charged with leaving Canada to participate in terrorist group activity, participating in such activity, conspiracy and providing services for terrorist purposes.

Mr. Greenspon said the moves to charge and seek peace bonds bolster the argument that the government should bring Canadians home and deal with them through this country’s legal system.

Since 2013, it has been an offence to leave or attempt to leave Canada to join terrorists. The RCMP said Ms. Chouay has been under investigation since 2014, and that she had been detained in Syria since 2017.

But perhaps more complicated is the case of four non-Canadian mothers of Canadian children. Ottawa has offered to repatriate Canadian children held in detention camps in northeast Syria, but their foreign mothers have been told they can’t come to Canada because they are not 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 filed for temporary resident permits 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.

Meanwhile, the remaining Canadians continue to wait in “dire and life-threatening” conditions, said Farida Deif, the Canada director for Human Rights Watch.

“All countries should be repatriating their nationals from Northeast Syria,” she said. “It’s complicated because many of these nationals are dual nationals which creates an added incentive by governments who don’t want to repatriate – to leave them behind,” she said.

Ms. Deif said in the cases of dual nationals, when there are Canadian children who have a surviving parent who is not Canadian, the government should put steps in place to resettle the children “ideally with their mothers.”

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