Canada has repatriated two women and two children from a camp in northeastern Syria for suspected ISIL (ISIS) members and their families, a move that was welcomed by rights groups that have long called for Canadian citizens to be allowed to return.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government confirmed on Wednesday that the four Canadian citizens had been repatriated.
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It also thanked the Syrian authorities for their cooperation and “efforts in providing care for the detained individuals under an extremely difficult security situation and adverse circumstances”, Global Affairs Canada said in a statement.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said on Wednesday that Oumaima Chouay, 27, had been arrested at the airport in Montreal upon her return from Syria on Tuesday evening and charged with “terrorism” offences.
Kimberly Polman, 50, was briefly detained when she landed on Wednesday morning and released, her lawyer told the AFP news agency and Canadian media outlets.
No information about the two children was released.
For years, rights groups and opposition politicians have urged the Canadian government to repatriate dozens of its citizens held in camps in northeastern Syria, saying they were languishing in “inhumane” conditions without being charged with a crime.
Canada is among several Western countries facing public pressure to repatriate citizens who joined or lived under ISIL, which had seized control of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.
Human Rights Watch Canada said in a June 2020 report that at least 47 Canadian citizens, including 26 children, were being held by Kurdish-led authorities in the camps.
Chouay had been the subject of an investigation since 2014 by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, Canada’s counterterrorism squad, the RCMP said in a statement on Wednesday. She faces four criminal charges, including participating in “terrorist group” activity.
Chouay was taken prisoner in 2017 by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, and she was held at al-Roj camp in Syria, RCMP Inspector David Beaudoin said during a news conference.
Polman, who was said to be in poor health, spent three years in a detention camp after travelling to Syria in 2015 to marry an ISIL fighter, which she later publicly said she regretted.
“Repatriate, as a matter of urgent priority, all Canadian citizens detained in northeast Syria, giving priority to children, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable detainees,” Human Rights Watch Canada tweeted on Tuesday evening as news of the women’s release broke.
Repatriate, as a matter of urgent priority, all Canadian citizens detained in northeast Syria, giving priority to children, persons requiring urgent medical assistance, and other particularly vulnerable detainees. https://t.co/UNgtKpUU0q https://t.co/JCEhHnYoM7
— Human Rights Watch Canada (@HRWcanada) October 25, 2022
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, New Democratic Party MP Heather McPherson welcomed the repatriation of the four Canadians, but said dozens more are still being held.
“It is far too late. There are still dozens of Canadians, including Canadian children, who are living in appalling conditions in northern Syria,” McPherson said.
“The government of Canada has said that it is impossible to repatriate these Canadians. And I think what we see today … is that it is very possible, that Canada has always had the ability,” she said.
In 2020, Canada repatriated a five-year-old orphaned girl from Syria after her uncle took legal action against the government. Another child also was repatriated in 2021 as was her mother several months later.
United Nations human rights officials welcomed that first repatriation case, saying it was “absolutely urgent that women and children” be allowed to return to their home countries.
“We have found the conditions for women and children in these Syrian detention camps reaches the threshold standard for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law,” they said in October 2020.
Canada had previously said its lack of a diplomatic presence in Syria complicated efforts to repatriate citizens held in the camps. It also has argued that these repatriations could pose a security risk to the country.
In its statement on Wednesday, Global Affairs Canada said the safety of all Canadians, both at home and abroad, remained a top priority.
“Canada conducted the operation on that basis and ensured the health and wellbeing of the 4 Canadians,” it said, thanking the United States for its assistance in the operation.
“Canada cannot provide information about the individuals due to privacy considerations and cannot share details of the repatriation for operational security reasons.”