The Australian government has repatriated four Australian women and their 13 children from a Syrian refugee camp to New South Wales state, home affairs minister Clare O’Neil said.
The repatriation is part of a plan to bring back from Syria dozens of Australian women and children who are relatives of dead or jailed ISIL (ISIS) fighters and who have languished for several years at the al-Hol and Roj detention camps in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria.
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Australia first repatriated eight children and grandchildren of two dead ISIL fighters from a Syrian refugee camp in 2019 but has held off repatriating any others until now.
“The decision to repatriate these women and their children was informed by individual assessments following detailed work by national security agencies,” O’Neil said in a statement on Saturday.
The women and children left the Roj refugee camp in northern Syria on Thursday afternoon and crossed the border into Iraq to board a flight home, the Sydney Morning Herald and state broadcaster ABC reported on Friday.
O’Neil said at all times the focus has been on the safety and security of “all Australians” as well as those involved in the repatriation, with the government having “carefully considered the range of security, community and welfare factors in making the decision to repatriate”.
The repatriation followed similar moves by the United States, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Canada, O’Neil said.
She said allegations of illegal activity would continue to be investigated by state and federal law enforcement authorities.
“Any identified offences may lead to law enforcement action being taken,” O’Neil said, adding that New South Wales was providing “extensive support services” to assist the group to reintegrate into Australia.
Opposition party leader Peter Dutton has labelled the move as not in the country’s best interest, saying the women have mixed with “people who hate our country, hate our way of life”.
In a statement on Saturday attributed to the repatriated women, the group said they were “deeply thankful” to be back in Australia and they expressed regret for the “troubles and hurt” caused by their actions, particularly to their families.
Asking for privacy and space to reconnect with their loved ones, the women expressed hope that “all Australian children and their mothers will soon be repatriated from the camps in Syria”.
Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said the repatriation was a “long overdue step”.
“For years, the Australian government has abandoned its nationals to horrific conditions in locked camps in northeast Syria,” McNeill said.
“Australia can play a leadership role on counterterrorism through these orderly repatriations of its nationals, most of them children who never chose to live under ISIS,” she said.
In a statement congratulating Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for his “strong leadership” on the repatriation plan, the humanitarian organisation Save the Children said that an estimated 11,000 foreign children and women remain in the Roj and al-Hol camps.
“The risks to children have only become greater due to increasing violence and an outbreak of cholera across the region,” the organisation said in a statement.
MEDIA RELEASE: : Save the Children welcomes the safe repatriation of 13 innocent Australian children and their mothers to home shores after spending years in camps in North East Syria. pic.twitter.com/GQSAk1Ufys
— Save the Children Australia News (@SaveAusNews) October 29, 2022