Orphaned girl freed from Syrian detention camp to join family in Canada

A five-year-old girl who spent more than a year in a Syrian detention camp after her family were killed in an airstrike on Isis members has been released and will soon join her family in Canada.

Officials announced on Monday that the girl, known as Amira, had been released into the care of a consular officer who will accompany her to Canada – a country she has never visited.

Amira was taken to the Kurdish-run al-Hawl camp after she was found by a roadside following an airstrike which killed her parents and siblings. Both her parents were Canadian and are suspected to have joined the Islamic State in Syria, where she was born.

She is the first Canadian Isis dependent to be repatriated. Canada’s foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, said in a statement that the government had worked closely on her case ever since it became aware of her “exceptional circumstances”.

But the delayed repatriation process prompted Amira’s family to file a lawsuit in July, alleging the government of the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had violated her rights.

At one point, Amira’s uncle Ibrahim – who lives in Toronto – travelled to eastern Syria hoping to retrieve her. But he soon grew frustrated by his interactions with consular officials.

“They just keep moving the goalposts further and further back,” he told Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year a panel of UN human rights experts called on Canada to help Amira join her family. “Children like her should be regarded primarily as victims and treated as such … They should not be punished because of the presumed behaviour or affiliation of their parents,” they added.

Trudeau’s government argues that the process has been complicated because it does not have diplomats on the ground in Syria.

But Farida Deif, the Canadian director of Human Rights Watch, contrasted the scale of Canada’s effort to repatriate nearly 40,000 citizens affected by coronavirus with its relative inaction over citizens stranded in Syria.

“It’s praiseworthy that Canada finally took action to repatriate a Canadian orphan from north-east Syria,” said Deif. “But it really doesn’t absolve Canada of its responsibility to return the 25 other Canadian children, many of whom are under the age of six and remain in life-threatening conditions.”

The United States recently announced the repatriation of 27 citizens, 10 of whom will face terrorism chargers upon return. Even the United Kingdom, which has long resisted repatriating citizens from the region, has received more children from Syria than Canada.

“Canada has really been an outlier on this issue,” said Leah West, an expert on national security law and lecturer at Carleton University. “Most people would find that shocking, given the feminist foreign policy agenda that this government puts forward when it’s dealing with its partners on the international stage.”

Trudeau has also said his government plans to charge citizens who joined with terrorism offences when possible.

But West and Deif argued that the awkward domestic politics surrounding the return of families who joined the Islamic State does not lessen the country’s responsibility to its own citizens.

“Canada should not abandon their citizens to arbitrary and indefinite detention in appalling conditions simply because the decision to repatriate them may not be a politically popular move,” said Deif.

Erin O’Toole, leader of the opposition Conservative party, welcomed the news. “Conservatives have been clear that Canadians who join Isis need to be held accountable for their actions and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but we must have compassion for the young Canadian children trapped overseas,” he said.

Some 60,000 women and children with links to Isis and 10,000 displaced civilians are held at al-Hawl, in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Kurdish officials have said they plan to release more than 20,000 civilians from detention camps this week – some of whom are related to former Isis members.

“The [autonomous government] can no longer maintain the situation in these camps – they can’t keep thousands of foreigners indefinitely. And they’ve talked about returning to prosecuting foreigners in the spring, a plan that was delayed because of Covid-19,” said West. “There will come a day when the government of Canada will be faced with hard choices. And I think that day is approaching.”