A human rights group wants the government to bring back Canadians held at detention facilities for ISIS suspects in Syria, saying their repatriation should be a “matter of urgent priority.”
Human Rights Watch said the roughly two dozen children, most of whom were born in Syria to Canadian parents, should be treated as victims of ISIS and prioritized for return.
It also said Canada’s war crimes program and the RCMP’s international investigations section must be “adequately resourced and staffed” so adult detainees can be properly investigated.
They were among the recommendations in a report released Monday by the New York-based rights group, which claimed 26 Canadian children, 13 women and 8 men were being held at detention facilities for captured ISIS members and their families.
The government has not confirmed those numbers.
“Abandoning citizens to indefinite, unlawful detention in filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous camps and prisons does not make Canada safer,” said Letta Tayler, the Human Rights Watch senior crisis and conflict researcher.
“Instead, it can fuel despair and violent radicalization, and punishes innocent children for any crimes of their parents.”
The Canadian government has not yet returned any Canadians captured during the conflict against ISIS, although the Kurdish-led militia holding them has urged countries to collect their nationals and put them on trial.
That has left the handful of Canadian ISIS members who survived the conflict, and their families, in a network of prisons and detention camps operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Responding to questions about the report, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had no diplomatic presence in the “extremely dangerous” region and his priority was the safety of government employees.
But Human Rights Watch blamed a “lack of political will” for Trudeau’s inaction.
Terrorism expert Jessica Davis said Canada’s ISIS members would continue to pose a threat as long as they remained overseas in makeshift detention facilities.
“Ideally, these individuals should be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or terrorism offences,” said Davis, President of Insight Threat Intelligence.
“Leaving them in Syria demonstrates Canada’s refusal to take responsibility for a problem that we failed to prevent, and that we have had ample time to try to fix.”
The human rights report said the government should take into consideration whether women and children were victims of ISIS who were “lured, groomed, or pressured.”
It also wants the government to “consider alternatives to incarceration” for women caring for young children.
But Davis, a former Canadian Security Intelligence Service analyst, said the government should be cautious about viewing male ISIS members as threats and women as trafficking victims.
“And as we are seeing in Germany, many of these women kept slaves, and in some cases, those slaves died due to their mistreatment.”
Thousands of extremists from around the world crossed illicitly into Iraq and Syria to live under ISIS, which engaged in widespread atrocities such as public beheadings and slavery as it attempted to impose its version of Islamic law on locals.
Thousands were captured during the rout of ISIS that ended last year.
They include self-admitted ISIS fighters from Canada, such as Mohamed Ali and Mohamed Khalifa, as well as Canadian women who have claimed they had no role in ISIS, and their children.
At least 20 nations have repatriated at least one of their citizens from the region, among them the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and France, the report said.
The RCMP has been investigating the Canadians in an attempt to have charges ready should they return, but has also acknowledged the challenge of finding usable evidence concerning events in Syria and Iraq.
Conditions at the camps for ISIS families are dire, the report said, and five Canadian children have medical conditions ranging from asthma to anaemia to neck tumours.
A five-year-old orphan whose Canadian parents were killed during the anti-ISIS offensive is among those detained at Al-Hawl, a massive women and children’s camp where ISIS supporters hold sway.
The eldest Canadian child is 17, while the youngest is a 1-year-old, according to the report. Eighteen of them are 6 or younger, and five are the children of one foreign and one Canadian parent.
The report said researchers met three Canadian detainees during visits last year, and spoke to a fourth by phone in April. They also interviewed the families of 19 Canadian detainees.
“While Human Rights Watch cannot confirm the veracity of detainees’ statements, many of the detainees told us or their families that they regretted traveling to Syria soon after arriving but once under ISIS rule could find no way out,” said the report.
The report said the only way to hold to account Canadians “implicated in serious ISIS crimes” was to return them to Canada so they could be investigated and, if warranted, prosecuted.
“For all these reasons, Canada should, as a matter of urgent priority, repatriate all Canadians detained in northeast Syria for rehabilitation, reintegration, and, if appropriate, prosecution,” the rights group said.
“Repatriation measures that Canada should take include promptly verifying citizenship, issuing citizens travel documents, and providing or coordinating safe passage from northeast Syria to Canadian consulates or territory.”