Families of Australians held in Syrian detention camps welcome ‘incredibly exciting’ news of planned repatriation

<span>Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

A lawyer for Australians trapped in Syrian detention camps say conditions are “volatile and unsafe” inside the camps as winter approaches, with interruptions to food and water supply, and the need for their repatriation growing increasingly urgent.

Guardian Australia reported on Sunday that the government was preparing an operation to start repatriating more than 60 Australians – widows and children of slain or jailed Islamic State fighters – who are in the al-Hawl and Roj detention camps. About 20 are adults, many of whom say they were coerced or tricked into travelling to Syria by husbands who have since died.

Most of the more than 40 children are under the age of six. Several were born in the detention camps.

Between 20 and 30 people are expected to be repatriated initially, with subsequent operations expected in the coming months.

Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter Mariam and her three children are in the Roj camp in Syria’s north-east, said: “It’s every parent’s wish to ensure their children are safe.”

“The welfare of these children is paramount, so it’s important that every Australian woman and child is brought home.”

Dabboussy said family members had not been notified by the government it was planning to repatriate women and children, “but it would be an incredibly exciting prospect”.

“The families just want to welcome them home and would happily cooperate with all levels of government to make that happen,” he said. The news that a rescue mission was planned was consistent with recent discussions between family representatives and Australian authorities.

Related: Australian children rescued from Syrian camps need tailored support to reintegrate into society, expert says

Sarah Condon, a Robinson Gill lawyer representing a cohort of families from Melbourne who make up roughly half of the Australians, said she had yet to be informed by authorities about the planned repatriation.

She told Guardian Australia that while she was not in a position to comment on individual cases, all Australians detained in both camps should be repatriated urgently.

“The conditions in the camp remain volatile and unsafe, and continue to fluctuate from one day to the next,” Condon said, adding there had been reports of interruptions to food and water supplies.

She said the families remain committed to cooperating with authorities upon their return.

“The expectation that justice be done requires due process, and an examination of what, if any, evidence exists,” she said. “The authorities – and courts, if required – should be left to that task.”

Condon said the comments made by shadow home affairs minister Karen Andrews describing the repatriations as “very concerning” demonstrated a lack of understanding about the dangers facing the women and children in the camp.

“Following the tragic and entirely preventable death of Yusuf Zahab, a detained child – we know that the risk to Australian life is not far-fetched or fanciful.

“Karen Andrews’ comments this morning – effectively proposing the facilitation of indefinite and uncharged detention, and the slow-motion death of Australian women and children – is not an option that is consistent with the government’s obligations to Australian citizens.”

In 2019, Australia launched a secret rescue mission to repatriate eight orphans, including a pregnant teenager, from the camps. But since then the government has refused to bring any more home, citing security concerns.

The opposition leader, Peter Dutton, was the home affairs minister in 2019 when he said further repatriations were not being considered because “these are people … some of them, have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.

“They’ve gone willingly and they are as hardcore as some of the male terrorists they’ve seen in Syria and Iraq,” he said at the time.

Previous governments also argued they were unwilling to risk more Australian lives on a rescue mission.

The Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said the repatriation of Australians was “long overdue”.

“Leaving Australians in Syria in horrific conditions will not make Australia safer,” she said. “Women and children have been held indefinitely without charge – this is collective punishment. The conditions in the camps are horrible – poor sanitation, overcrowded, filthy and inhumane.

“Children who lived under IS and women trafficked by IS should be treated first and foremost as victims. Others could be investigated and prosecuted under Australian law, which is at least some measure of accountability.”

Related: Australia to launch rescue mission for women and children trapped in Syrian detention camps

The chief executive of Save the Children Australia, Mat Tinkler, visited the camps in June and said he was encouraged by the reports of a repatriation plan.

“For more than three years, these children have been trapped in one of the worst places in the world to be a child and their situation has been growing increasingly desperate,” he said.

Tinkler rejected arguments repatriation was impractical or too dangerous.

“That excuse was always rubbish,” he said, citing his own visit to Roj camp. “It’s not complicated. If a bloke from the west of Melbourne can get there on his own, then surely the Australian government, with all of its resources and capabilities, and the support of the US military, can.”

He said it was in Australia’s national security interests to bring the women and children home sooner rather than later, and under government supervision and control, given as citizens they would ultimately have the right to return anyway.

The women in Roj camp have volunteered to be subject to government control orders if they are returned.