Canadian officials removed an orphaned girl from an ISIS detention camp in northeastern Syria over the weekend, the government confirmed on Monday.
The girl, known as Amira, is the first Canadian to be repatriated from Syrian camps for ISIS detainees.
The daughter of suspected Canadian ISIS supporters killed in 2019, Amira was handed over to a consular official and was being accompanied to Canada.
A source told Global News the Canadian Armed Forces had provided support to a Global Affairs Canada consular delegation in what was described as a well-planned initiative that took custody of the girl from authorities in northeast Syria.
She was taken to Iraq and was then to fly to Canada. The Canadian Special Operations Forces were “instrumental” in the operation, the source said.
“We are delighted by this news and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has made this possible. We would kindly request privacy as my niece transitions into her new life in Canada,” Amira’s uncle, Ibrahim, said in a statement.
Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer representing the uncle, said he received a phone call from Global Affairs Canada on Sunday with the news. Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne later confirmed it in a statement.
“This is a wonderful breakthrough for Amira and her family. It also gives hope to the families of the other 46 Canadians being held in North eastern Syria,” Greenspon said.
The case marks an about face for the Liberal government, which had previously refused to repatriate any Canadian citizens from detention facilities for ISIS captives and their families.
While Canada’s close allies have brought their citizens out of the crowded camps and prisons, some to face charges over their involvement in ISIS, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has claimed the region was too dangerous for Canadian officials.
What changed that policy is unclear, but Amira’s uncle had filed a case in the Federal Court alleging the government had violated the five-year-old’s rights by not bringing her home.
“I am pleased that this Canadian child orphaned in Syria will soon be united with extended family in Canada,” Champagne said Monday.
“Global Affairs Canada has been actively engaged in this case since first learning of the child’s exceptional circumstances. The focus is now on protecting the child’s privacy and ensuring that the child receives the support and care needed to begin a new life here in Canada.”
He thanked the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces “for their valuable support during this process.”
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said he had urged the government to reunite children with their families in Canada more than a year ago.
“Finally, we are seeing some action from this Liberal government. We want to see a plan to reunite other Canadian children who are trapped in Syrian camps through no fault of their own with their families here in Canada.”
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“Conservatives have been clear that Canadians who join ISIS need to be held accountable for their actions and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but we must have compassion for the young Canadian children trapped overseas.”
Amira was born in Syria. Her Canadian parents and her siblings were allegedly killed in an airstrike during the intense fighting that ousted ISIS from its last patch of territory in Syria.
She has never set foot in Canada.
The Kurdish authorities who control northeast Syria had long ago agreed to hand Amira over, but the Canadian government had not taken up the offer.
Her uncle did “everything humanly possible” to bring her back to Canada but said in his legal action the federal government had “been unwilling to take a single step to enable the repatriation of Amira to take place.”
Dozens of Canadians, including children and self-admitted ISIS fighters, remain at detention camps and makeshift prisons in the region, under the control of Kurdish fighters.
Last week, the United States said it had repatriated 27 Americans held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, including all 10 who faced terrorism charges in U.S. courts.
By contrast, Canada has now returned just one child and has not laid charges against any of the alleged Canadian ISIS members captured by the SDF.
“Canada finally took concrete action to bring home a 5-year-old orphan detained for nearly two years in a squalid camp in northeast Syria,” said Farida Deif, the Human Rights Watch Canada Director.
“While this step is commendable, it does not absolve Canada of its responsibility to bring home all its detained nationals for rehabilitation, reintegration, and prosecution if warranted. The lives of 46 other Canadians, including 25 children, remain on the line. The government should stop turning a blind eye to their detention in overcrowded, filthy, and life-threatening camps and prisons.”
In a report release in June, Human Rights Watch urged the government to bring back the Canadians as a “matter of urgent priority.”
The children, most of whom were born in Syria to Canadian parents, should be treated as victims of ISIS and prioritized for return, the report said, adding adult detainees should be investigated.
Overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of ISIS members and their families in their custody, local authorities announced Monday they would free Syrian citizens from the camps, leaving only foreigners in detention.
The government’s decision to repatriate Amira followed a flurry of ISIS-related arrests in Canada.
Two alleged former ISIS members were arrested in Calgary, a woman accused of trying to join ISIS was arrested in Markham, Ont., and a Burlington, Ont. man was charged for allegedly faking his involvement in ISIS.