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Six Canadian children to return from Syrian detention without their mother: advocates

OTTAWA — Six Canadian children are set to leave a Syrian prison camp and fly to Canada without their mother who cannot come with them because federal officials have not completed her security assessment, advocates for the family say.
A general view of Karama camp for internally displaced Syrians, Monday, Feb. 14, 2022 by the village of Atma, Idlib province, Syria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Omar Albam

OTTAWA — Six Canadian children are set to leave a Syrian prison camp and fly to Canada without their mother who cannot come with them because federal officials have not completed her security assessment, advocates for the family say.

The federal government gave the Quebec woman until Sunday to decide whether her children would join other Canadians on the repatriation flight expected to depart any day now or remain with her in Syria, said Alexandra Bain, director of the group Families Against Violent Extremism.

"I'm shocked. It doesn't make any sense," Bain said Saturday in an interview. "It's not how I expect Canada to behave."

The Canadians are among the many foreign nationals in Syrian camps run by Kurdish forces that reclaimed the war-torn region from the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. 

The children, ranging in age from as young as three to 16 years, have no family in Quebec, said Bain, whose organization helps families with loved ones caught up in violent extremist groups. At least two of the six children were born in Syria. There is a plan for Quebec social service agencies to place the six in care, in three groups of two.

The mother, who has no idea if or when she will be allowed to leave al-Roj camp in northeastern Syria, is worried about how she will maintain contact with her youngsters, Bain said.

"She's doing this for her children. And she's terrified that she's doing the wrong thing."

Added lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who is assisting the family: "It's not a choice that any parent should ever have to make."

Bain and Greenspon requested that the woman's name not be published due to the sensitivity of the case and related privacy concerns.

Greenspon has argued in Federal Court on behalf of several men, women and children detained in Syria that Global Affairs Canada must arrange for their return, saying that refusing to do so violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Greenspon reached an agreement with the federal government in January to bring home six Canadian women and 13 children who had been part of the court action. All 19 are expected to be on the imminent repatriation flight from Syria. 

There was hope that the Quebec woman and her six children, though not part of the court case, would also be boarding the plane together.

Greenspon said while the children have been cleared to leave Syria, their mother is still undergoing a federal security assessment.

Separating a mother from her children violates Canada's international commitments as well as the government's policy for assessing possible repatriation cases, Greenspon said. "Their own policy framework says that they shouldn't be doing this."

Asked about the case, Global Affairs spokesman Grantly Franklin said Sunday the department continues to evaluate the provision of assistance in line with the policy framework.

"Agreeing to or requesting repatriation for one's child is an incredibly difficult decision and one that must be made by the parent, and the parent alone," he said in a written response. "It is important that such a decision is informed by all available facts. Due to privacy and operational security considerations, we cannot comment further."

Bain received a Nov. 24 letter from Global Affairs saying the woman and her six children had met the criteria for federal consideration of assistance to Canadians detained in the region, spelled out in the government's January 2021 policy framework.

The letter noted threats to the woman and her children's safety "given the dangerous security conditions inside the camp." It also cited reports of declining sanitary and living conditions, including possible cholera outbreaks and intermittent access to food and clean water.

Bain said the woman has been attacked and beaten while in detention.

As part of the repatriation procedures, the RCMP has recently been conducting interviews with Canadian detainees in Syria. The Quebec woman spoke with the Mounties last Wednesday, an experience she found confusing and terrifying, Bain said. The next day, "they told her she couldn't come home."

Bain is aware of 10 other Canadian children of non-Canadian mothers in detention in Syria. These mothers have decided not to send their children to Canada in the current repatriation effort, she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2023.

Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press