The family of a Canadian orphan living at a camp for ISIS detainees in Syria filed legal action against the federal government on Tuesday, alleging Ottawa is violating her rights by not bringing her home.
The case was filed in the Federal Court on behalf of a 5-year-old, Amira, whose Canadian parents and three siblings were killed in an airstrike during the collapse of ISIS in 2019.
Since then Amira has been living at Al-Hawl Camp, a facility in northeast Syria operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish fighters who defeated ISIS and are holding thousands of prisoners.
Her uncle, identified only as Ibrahim, a Toronto engineer, brought the case against the Canadian government after traveling to the region in an unsuccessful attempt to bring her back to Canada.
According to the court application, the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES) have both agreed to hand over Amira, and the Canadian government is the only remaining obstacle to her return.
The application asks the court to order the government to comply with its duty to issue Amira an emergency travel document and work with Kurdish authorities to facilitate her return to Canada.
While her uncle has done “everything humanly possible” to bring her back, the government of Canada has “for more than a year been unwilling to take a single step to enable the repatriation of Amira to take place,” the application alleged.
The allegations have not been proven in court.
Global Affairs Canada said it was “aware that a Canadian orphan is currently in a Kurdish-run camp in northeastern Syria.”
“This is an extremely complex situation and we recognize how difficult it is for this child and her family in Canada. Officials are in regular contact with her family and Minister Champagne has spoken to them directly,” a spokesperson said.
“Global Affairs Canada has worked in collaboration with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which has been able to confirm the child’s identity. Consular officials are actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities and the international non-governmental organization providing care to her.”
But the department said that Canada had no diplomatic presence in Syria and, given the security situation in the region, as well as the global pandemic, “it is extremely difficult to provide consular services anywhere in Syria.”
“Despite these challenges, Global Affairs is evaluating options to assist further in this case as we continue to advocate for the child’s health and safety.”
Lawrence Greenspon, the Ottawa lawyer representing the uncle, told reporters Amira was born in Syria in 2015. Her parents were Canadians suspected of having joined ISIS.
Found alone after her family was killed in Baghuz, Syria, where ISIS made its last stand, she is now being cared for by a humanitarian organization, he said.
Her uncle has confirmed her identity, and Global Affairs Canada has not questioned it, he added.
Greenspon said he cannot understand why the Canadian government had failed to bring her back, as other governments had done.
“Why not Amira?” the lawyer said. “We say there’s a requirement for the government to act.”
Twenty-six Canadian children, 13 women and eight men are allegedly being held at makeshift prisons and camps for ISIS detainees in northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said in a report released last month.
Although Canada’s allies have repatriated at least some of their citizens, and the Kurdish-led militia holding them has urged countries to collect their nationals and put them on trial, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused to do so.
Ottawa claims it is too dangerous to send federal officials to Syria and therefore it cannot help the detainees obtain the travel documents required to return to Canada. That has left almost 50 Canadians in a network of temporary detention facilities such as Al-Hawl, which houses tens of thousands of captives.
The Canadian detainees include self-admitted Toronto-based ISIS members such as Mohamed Ali and Mohamed Khalifa as well as Canadian women who claim they had no role in ISIS, but most are children born in Syria to Canadian parents.
“Al-Hawl is hopelessly overcrowded, has a lack of clean water, many of its detainees suffer from malnutrition and non-existent hygiene measures and there is an acute shortage of medical care and facilities,” according to the court application.
The case is the first to challenge the government’s position on the ISIS detainees.
It alleges that Canada has refused to: make a formal request for the repatriation of Amira; assign a Canadian delegate or representative to meet with local authorities; or work with a third party to arrange her return.
In its report, New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the government to bring back the Canadians and investigate adult detainees, saying their repatriation should be a “matter of urgent priority.”
“Abandoning citizens to indefinite, unlawful detention in filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous camps and prisons does not make Canada safer,” said Letta Tayler, the rights group’s senior crisis and conflict researcher.
“Instead, it can fuel despair and violent radicalization, and punishes innocent children for any crimes of their parents.”
At least 20 nations have repatriated at least one of their citizens from the region, including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Norway, and France took back 10 children this month, the report said.