Mothers in Syrian detention camps given ‘cruel’ choice to keep children or send them to Canada: advocates

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More than two dozen women and children held in northeastern Syrian detention camps are due to arrive on Canadian soil any day, but the fate of 10 of those children is unknown after their mothers were given the “cruel” choice of giving them up or keeping them in “inhumane” conditions, according to advocates.

“Choice almost is not the right word If you’re asking a mother to say goodbye to her children,” says Faraz Bawa, a Calgary-based lawyer for one of the women.

In January, after years of efforts by lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, the federal government agreed to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children from northeastern Syria, where they have been held in Kurdish-run detention camps for suspected ISIS members and their families.

An additional 10 children born to four non-Canadian mothers were identified as being Canadian citizens who qualify to be repatriated, according to Alexandra Bain, director of FAVE (Families Against Violent Extremism).

The children were either born in Canada or were fathered by Canadian men. The mothers are their sole caretakers.

If the children are brought to Canada without their mothers, some are at risk of being placed in provincial care, Bain says.

She noted that one boy has autism, is non-verbal and continues to suffer from injuries sustained in a bombing.

Now Bain and two Calgary lawyers representing two of the women are lobbying to keep the children and their mothers together.

Repatriation is expected to take place as soon as this week.

But on Jan. 27, the mothers were contacted by Global Affairs Canada officials who offered to repatriate only the children, according to a letter sent by FAVE to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The mothers were asked to make a Solomonic decision: save your children but lose them forever — or condemn them with you to a life of hell,” reads part of the letter.

The letter describes the conditions in the camps as “inhumane, where individuals are arbitrarily detained without trial, live in constant fear of violence, have inadequate access to medical care, and are at risk of severe disease.”

Bawa says lawyers and organizations trying to help the women have largely been left in the dark as to the government’s intentions.

He believes there are three potential scenarios the government could be planning.

It’s possible, he says that there may already be efforts to bring the mothers with the children and the government simply hasn’t communicated that fact.

A second option could see the kids brought to Canada with the women left behind as they apply and await temporary resident permits. Bawa has proactively submitted those applications.

In the worst case scenario, he says, Canada is not planning to do anything for the mothers.

“That’s an ultimatum that’s cruel on both ends,” says Bawa.

No statement from Global Affairs Canada

The department repeatedly said it was “working” on the request and committed to having a statement “soon.”

Both Bawa and Bain acknowledge the non-Canadian mothers may have, at one time, had ties to ISIS. 

But Bain says ISIS should be looked at as a cult. “People make mistakes in joining cults,” she says. “They can be helped, if they want to, to leave these cults.”

“We do this with prisoners; we have people who have been repeatedly incarcerated and yet we give them a chance.”

Bain says the families she works with are looking to denounce extremism. 

“Most women returning have suffered some form of being trafficked, recruited and have themselves been abused,” says Bain. 

Lawyer Yoav Niv, who helped coordinate representation for the four non-Canadian mothers, questions the legality of the womens’ placement in the camps and called their detention “arbitrary and unlawful.”

“Detention based solely on family ties amounts to collective punishment, a war crime,” he said.

Both Niv and Bawa say there are ways to address security should Canada identify concerns with the mothers. 

In late 2021, a Calgary woman who had been held at one of the northeastern Syrian detention camps for two years with her young daughter landed back in Canada and was placed on a terrorism peace bond so that authorities could keep her on conditions to ensure she wasn’t posing a risk to the community. 

“There can be steps the Canadian government can take to monitor their behavior, monitor their whereabouts,” said Bawa. “They can be put on certain security certificates.”

The 29 women and children will land in the western provinces, Ontario and Quebec.

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