Bring Home the Suffering Australian Children and their Mothers in Syrian Camps

Jun 25, 2022
Syrian refugee children in the Ketermaya refugee camp
These people are ideological pawns in a politically partisan game. Image: Flickr / World Bank Photo Collection

The Albanese government has had bequeathed to it several unresolved human rights scandals which together have severely shrunk the moral character of Australia and Australians. Notable among them has been the plight of Australian overseas citizens who have fallen from grace.

These and similar matters have remained hidden from view or considered not Australia’s problem out of a disgracefully weaponised view of Australian security needs. The Biloela family are on their way to having permanent security. Whistle blowers such as Bernard Collaery are hopefully on their way to being lauded for the service they have rendered rather than punished for a supposed crime they have committed. But, yet to reappear from the shadows are the 60 Australian citizens, 40 of them children, still reported to being held in appalling conditions in Syrian camps under Kurdish control. These people are ideological pawns in a politically partisan game. Barnaby Joyce once described politics as a game, a statement that succinctly defines the previous governments approach on this and other multiple fronts.

As Prime Minister Albanese has said in a slightly different context: ʺAustralia is better than thisʺ.

The seeds of ISIS were sown in 2004 following the end of the Iraq war and the overthrow of the Sunni led government. The consequences of overthrowing a Sunni government to advantage a Shia led authority could have been calculated in advance but were not. Through clever propaganda, largely on social media platforms, Sunni youth from many countries were attracted to the cause of righting a perceived wrong inflicted by the West, rejecting so called western cultural excesses, and to living under the umbrella of an idyllic Islamic caliphate with Islamic values. The awful reality was of course it’s very antithesis, a life of cruel savagery. Fear and destruction continued for more than 12 years. But by the close of 2017 ISIS had lost 95% of its territory and by 2018 had been decimated, if not eliminated. Left behind were multiple victims, most obviously large swathes of cultural destruction and brutalised lives across Iraq and Syria. Under this dreadful pile of victimhood, barely visible, lie the wives of its defeated military – and their children.

Several female Australian Islamic youth had been attracted/recruited. Many, perhaps most, were not active participants in ISISʹ cruel and savage campaign. They chose or were cajoled into being wives of ISIS militia. They have subsequently borne their children. There should be no bar to their return to Australia. Those, now mothers, who were directly involved in ISIS atrocities must face the consequences of their actions. But the consequences should be faced in Australian courts and under Australian law. After appropriate reparation, a civilised country will aways attempt restoration for those of its own citizens who have fallen foul of their own ill-conceived choices.

It hardly needs to be said that children can never be held accountable for the actions of their parents. Nor does it need to be said that civility has many measures, but none more significant than the way a nation cares for and protects its vulnerable children. Until they are brought home, the psychological damage already inflicted upon these children cannot be measured, let alone treated. They have seen and heard levels of brutality to which no child should ever be exposed and from which a healthy adult life will struggle to emerge. They desperately need to live as children should live, in safety and freedom. In the meantime, it is understood serious disease and hunger haunts the camps, made worse through the covid pandemic. Most of the children and their mothers are reported to being held in the Roj camp, roughly 30 kilometres from the Iraq border. There is only one modest healthcare facility in the camp to treat around 2,500 camp residents. It enjoys grossly inadequate supplies and is only able to provide basic care.

It is clear the Australian people have been deceived. No serious attempt was made by the Morrison government to repatriate the children, with or without their mothers. In October 2021 Mat Tinkler the deputy CEO of ʹSave the Childrenʹ said “Clearly the Australian Government is not trying hard enough to protect these children, who are Australian citizens. The question is, are they trying at all?”

According to the October 2021 7.30 Report, the Morrison Government had had no communication with the Kurdish authorities about the repatriation of its citizens since 2019, despite suggesting in a letter to the United Nations that there was “regular engagement”.

The excuse given by the Morrison government for inaction was that repatriation was not being facilitated by Kurdish authorities, and it was too dangerous. This statement flies in the face of the fact that Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Iraq, Finland, and Britain have successfully repatriated citizens.

The eventual overthrow of ISIS was in no small part due to the courage, tenacity, and military skill of the Kurds. The Kurds are themselves victims of geo-political alliances. Treated at best as nuisances and worst as enemies of state in both Türkiye and Syria, they need and deserve the support of the international community in the alleviation of the burden they carry – not of their own making. It is unjust that with their limited resources they are left to care for families and children who ought to be the responsibility of other foreign governments, including Australia. Dr Abdul Karim Omar, co-Chair of the Foreign Relations Commission for the Kurdish Administration indicated in his interview with the 730 Report that there had been no communication with the Australian Government about the repatriation of Australian citizens. ʺThere is currently no dialogue between us in relation to any other handovers or in relation to funding support to be provided by the Australian Government for the costs of looking after ISIS fighters and their familiesʺ.

The Albanese government cannot be expected to resolve all the issues requiring moral rectitude bequeathed to it in its first month in office. However, the salvation of Australian children languishing in Syrian camps, casualties of a conflict long over, and now mostly forgotten, is urgent – very urgent.

George Browning was Anglican Bishop of Canberra Goulburn 1993 – 2008 and is President of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network

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