Why Canada took 18 months to get an orphan out of a Syrian detention camp

Click to play video: 'Canada repatriates orphaned girl from ISIS camp in Syria'
Canada repatriates orphaned girl from ISIS camp in Syria
Born to Canadian parents who allegedly joined the so-called Islamic State, five-year-old Amira was one of thousands detained in camps across Syria for their connections to ISIS fighters. Now, she is finally being repatriated to Canada. Mike Drolet explains how Canadian Special Operations Forces played a role in her release, and the undecided fate of many others like her – Oct 5, 2020

On Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, a Canadian government delegation crossed the Tigris River into northeast Syria to take custody of a five-year-old orphan.

Amira was the only survivor of a Canadian family killed by an airstrike during the fight against ISIS, to which her parents had allegedly belonged.

A year later, internal documents released to Global News under the Access to Information Act describe the months of discussions that preceded the handover.

They show Canadian officials knew about Amira in April 2019, located her that December, and in February 2020 were invited by U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities to come get her.

But Canadian officials instead spent months exchanging memos over what to do, and insisting northeast Syria wasn’t safe for them to visit, the documents show.

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While the U.S. and other countries were sending delegations to the region, Canadian officials wrote that they weren’t allowed to, citing “federal legislation and the Canadian Labour Code.”

The documents show Canadian officials wanted “alternate solutions” for getting Amira that did not involve crossing into Syria, before finally sending a delegation to bring her out.

“The situation is complex and COVID-19 has made it even more difficult,” one document read.

Global Affairs Canada did not directly respond when asked why it took 18 months to get Amira out of Syria.

Asked why the government had not repatriated the roughly three dozen Canadians, mostly children, still at camps for ISIS captives, a spokesperson cited “the security situation on the ground.”

But Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon said the declassified documents undermined the government’s position.

Greenspon, who represents the families of many of the detainees, said the documents showed Canadian officials could engage diplomatically with the Kurdish authorities and safely enter northeast Syria.

“This is exactly what we have asked them to do in regards to the 30-some men, women and children who are still there,” said Greenspon.

On Monday, Greenspon filed a case in the Federal Court on behalf of the families, accusing the government of failing to bring them home.

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Click to play video: 'Trudeau says repatriation of orphaned girl in Syria an ‘exceptional case’'
Trudeau says repatriation of orphaned girl in Syria an ‘exceptional case’

The documents show that Global Affairs Canada first learned about Amira shortly after ISIS had been ousted from its last stronghold in Baghuz, near the Iraqi border.

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Amira’s uncle, who lives in Canada, contacted Canadian consular officials in April 2019 for help bringing her to Canada.

In May, consular officials began contacting Kurdish authorities “to inquire about the whereabouts of the child.”

She was found at Al-Hol Camp, a sprawling detention facility for women and children captured during the fight against ISIS.

The uncle tried to bring her back himself, but the Kurds “would only hand Amira over to a Canadian delegation,” a memo said.

In February 2020, Canadian officials “established Amira’s identity and determined that she is entitled to Canadian citizenship,” a memo said.

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“They did this based on e-mails and photos provided.”

Global Affairs Canada sent a letter to the Kurdish authorities on Feb. 11, 2020 saying, “we would be supportive of her repatriation should they agree to release her into the custody of her uncle.”

The Kurds, however, would “only hand her over to a Canadian delegation that visited their region and followed Kurdish protocols for release (e.g. meetings, signing documents).”

But the Canadian government took the position that Syria was a no-go zone.

Although NGOs, journalists and delegations from other governments had travelled to the Kurdish-held northeast, Ottawa considered it too risky for its officials.

A memo said Canada would not send its employees “for safety and security reasons,” adding the assessment was based partly on the Canadian Labour Code.

“Countries have different foreign policy and different presence and activities in the region. Each government does their own assessments involving a range of considerations,” it explained.

Rather, Canada was continuing to “advocate for her safety and well-being” while exploring “alternate solutions to secure Amira’s release and travel to Canada,” the documents said.

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By then, a year had passed, and the global pandemic brought a new complication to the case.

At a briefing on June 5, 2020, Canadian officials agreed to set up a working group to develop “operational plans in the coming weeks that will be presented to senior officials for consideration.”

Canada sent a letter to the Kurds on June 8, 2020 signalling “Canada’s desire to resolve Amira’s situation and discuss the requirements necessary to secure her repatriation.”

But the Kurds had already made it clear what Canada had to do: a delegation would have to visit northeast Syria, sign a repatriation agreement and take custody of Amira.

Click to play video: 'Canadian government not willing to take back its citizens ‘not respectful’: Syrian official'
Canadian government not willing to take back its citizens ‘not respectful’: Syrian official

An assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs Canada, however, “wanted to work with the Kurds to find a way to support Amira’s exit from Syria that did not require a crossover into northeast Syria.”

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“She asked whether a handover on the Iraqi side of the Syria-Iraq border would be possible,” according to a June 25 memo.

The Kurds insisted it had to happen on their territory.

Meanwhile, other countries were bringing out their citizens without incident. “We learned that, over the weekend, the French repatriated 10 orphans and unaccompanied children,” a memo noted.

A month later, Canadian officials had come up with two options to be presented to their superiors “for review and discussion on the way forward.”

Adding new pressure was an application filed in the Federal Court by Amira’s uncle, who was seeking an order to force the government to bring his niece to Canada.

The decision to send an official delegation to Syria was made on Sept. 11, 2020. The Canadian Armed Forces was to provide support for the delegation.

A “detailed operational plan” was put together, and Canadian military representatives in Iraq advised their contacts, while the composition of the delegation was being finalized.

“We are currently working on a four-week timeline,” read a secret memo.

Click to play video: 'Orphaned girl from ISIS camp in Syria handed over to Canadian delegation'
Orphaned girl from ISIS camp in Syria handed over to Canadian delegation

Video posted on Twitter by Abdulkarim Omar, the Kurdish foreign minister, showed the Canadians arriving at a government building just minutes from the Iraqi border on Oct. 4, 2020.

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Headed by Gregory Galligan, Canada’s executive co-ordinator for Syria, they sat with Kurdish officials and signed a document before departing with the then-five-year-old Canadian.

National security law expert Leah West said the documents showed the government had made the decision to repatriate Amira, come up with options and executed the plan without incident.

They also showed Canadian officials had strong lines of communication with the Kurdish authorities who control northeast Syria, said West, who teaches at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“Nothing in the documents makes me believe the security concerns were the fundamental reason for choosing whether or not to repatriate Amira,” said West, who visited the Syrian camps in 2019.

“There was no obvious change in the circumstances that flipped the answer from red to green. The only reference to security appeared to be the talking points prepared for her family.”

Since Amira’s return, a second Canadian girl has left Syria, handed over this time to a former U.S. diplomat, who also later secured the release of her mother.

Greenspon said he was aware of about 20 Canadian children who remained at the camps, along with about 10 women, while three or four Canadian men are detained by the Kurds.

In a report last week, Save the Children said Canada was among the countries that “have not done enough to repatriate their citizens” from the camps.

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“In recent months, countries including Germany, Finland and Belgium completed the repatriation of a group of mothers and children from the camps, proving again that it is possible to save lives when there is political will,” the report said.

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