The youngest, most unwell and most vulnerable of the Australian children currently held in squalid Syrian detention camps will be the first ones repatriated to Australia. But some of their mothers could face arrest – and potential charges – upon return to the country.
The Australian government is currently implementing plans to repatriate about 60 Australian women and children – wives, sons and daughters of slain or jailed Islamic State combatants – who have been held for more than three years in the dangerous detention camps in north-east Syria.
The majority – nearly 40 – of the Australian cohort are children, and most of those are aged under six. Several were born in the camps and know no life outside them.
Winters in north-east Syria are bitterly cold. Most of the Australians live in crowded, uninsulated tents in Roj camp, which are regularly inundated by freezing rain and offer little protection from the wind and snow.
In previous winters, Australian children have contracted severe frostbite. In recent weeks, food and water supplies have been interrupted and the camps are volatile and unsafe. Many of the Australian children have poor physical and mental health, are malnourished, and some are suffering from untreated shrapnel wounds.
Australia’s first repatriation operation will prioritise between 20 and 30 people from the most vulnerable families, including those with very young or sick children and women whom the government believes were trafficked or coerced into Syria by their former husbands.
Subsequent repatriation missions will follow in coming months.
Australian officials visited the camps earlier this year to undertake identity and biometric testing. There will be further crosschecking conducted in Australia before any removals from Syria.