How will the Morrison government respond to the desperate plight of some 65 women and children detained in a camp in Syria? Relatives are pleading with our government to bring their family members safely home, but it appears immobilised by fear of a political reaction. How good is that?
Some 65 Australian women and children are stuck in a dangerous no-man’s-land, the Al-Hol detention camp in Syria containing up to 70,000 women and child detainees, families of IS militants and displaced civilians. The Australian government has refused requests from the Kurdish authorities guarding the camp and from governments of Turkey and the USA, as well as international groups, for all countries to take back their nationals, if need be for trial. The UK, Belgium, France and Germany have been attempting to do so in the recent cease-fire with Turkey.
The Morrison government has argued that it is too dangerous to risk the lives of other Australians in extracting these wives and children of ISIS militants. But Kurdish authorities have repeatedly offered to take the evacuees to the border towns or an embassy in Erbil or elsewhere. All that is needed is a request from the Australian government. Meanwhile journalists have been flooding the camp in the recent ceasefire period. How unsafe is that?
The government is understandably very cautious about taking these women back to Australia. As Lydia Khalil from the Lowy Institute has written, some of them may be jihadists. But others among them claim to have been tricked or misled into the ISIS disaster.
Kamalle Dabboussy’s 28-year-old daughter Miriam said she was forced at gunpoint into Syria with her three children in 2015, and is now trapped in the camp. He said that many of the Australian women were, like Miriam, tricked or coerced into traveling to Syria. Dabboussy visited his daughter in the camp, along with a Four Corners team, and saw the distressing conditions in which hundreds of children had already died. Less than 10 Australian children, mostly orphans, had earlier been repatriated to Australia.
On behalf of 63 Australians, 19 women and 44 children, Dabboussy said all the women had offered to be placed under a strict control order as a condition of repatriation if our government would rescue these children from harm and bring them back to their families. The women would be screened and released or brought to trial if need be. Australia has the expertise and resources to manage this process well.
To help break the deadlock with the Australian government, Save the Children Fund and Dabboussy recently wrote an appeal to every Federal Member of Parliament and Senator to bring back these survivors.
All these people have endured terrifying experiences and continuing trauma. Hopefully any previous supporters of ISIS among them will have been repelled by the shocking crimes wreaked on millions of people, and have recognised that ISIS is a perversion of Islam that Muslim communities elsewhere consider has brought same on their religion.
If we do not rescue these children and help them to recover and be integrated into a caring community, they will likely die or be caught up in further cycles of violence.
Australia has a clear moral responsibility to protect the lives of these innocent children, 30 of whom are under five. As Mr Morrison himself has said, ‘children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.’
Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who lectures at Yarra Theological Union and is Director of Social Policy Connections.