Earlier this month, the US government announced it had "brought back every American supporter of ISIS known to be held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against whom we have charges" from northeast Syria. The US is calling on "responsible governments" like Australia to do the same. The US military has even created a task force to help countries repatriate detainees.
But Australia has not assisted in the repatriation of any of its citizens since the government helped eight Australian children to return in June 2019. SDF, the armed force of a Kurdish-led group controlling the region, has been detaining these foreigners in camps in northeast Syria for more than 18 months because of their suspected Islamic State (ISIS) affiliation.
Last month, SDF moved most of the Australians from Al-Hol camp to Roj, another camp about 100-kilometers north. Witnesses described how on September 6, in the dead of night, men in vans snatched a group of 19 Australian women and children from their tents, handcuffing some of the women. For a few days it was unclear exactly what happened to them.
According to sources on the ground, SDF authorities transferred the women and children to a prison, supposedly for COVID-19 quarantine, and then to Roj. On September 14, SDF forces removed most of the remaining Australians from al-Hol in a less dramatic, daytime operation.
But now, parents and grandparents in Australia have lost phone contact with their loved ones, as security is tighter in Roj. Transfer from one locked camp to another is not the solution these Australians desperately need. They need to come home.
ISIS members have committed mass killings, torture, and rape. But as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, "children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents." And not everyone who travelled to Syria went voluntarily.
Detaining these Australians in Syrian camps is inhumane, arbitrary and unlawful. In June, Human Rights Watch called on the Canadian government to repatriate its 47 citizens from north-east Syria. For Australia, it's about 80 men, women and children - about two busloads.
Most of the 47 children are age 6 or younger. For children who have already suffered so much trauma, prolonged detention is likely to cause more distress, and could make them vulnerable to violent radicalisation.
About 20 women in the camps, along with an estimated 12 Australian men imprisoned separately in even worse conditions, have not been charged, or even taken before a judge as international law requires.
No one wants to risk another terrorist attack in Australia or put Australians at risk. But leaving people in Syria does not make Australians safe. ISIS suspects and their family members have escaped these camps and prisons. There are no prosecutions of foreign ISIS suspects in northeast Syria, depriving victims and their families of redress.
Australia has ample tools to prosecute adults at home - one could argue too many tools, due to its broad counter-terrorism laws. Australia also has the legal authority to monitor people through control orders, and some of the women's families say they have agreed to control orders if repatriated. The courts should strictly monitor use of these measures to ensure they comply with international law.
Bringing these citizens home is complex. It involves federal and state governments and cooperation from counter-terrorism police.
But it can be done - Australia and at least 22 other countries have repatriated some and in some cases hundreds of their citizens.
The pandemic has provided a convenient excuse to kick the can down the road. The government's repeated excuse is that it won't "risk Australian lives" by going into the Syrian camps. In recent weeks, Canada, Italy and the UK have each repatriated one of more citizens from camps in north-east Syria, showing it remains possible.
In July, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, referring to the pandemic situation, said that: "We have seen closed borders, significant travel restrictions ... movement in Syria and in the region is now more complex than ever. And at home our states and territories are very stretched... because of the impact of COVID-19 infections. So any assessment of the sorts of resources that would be needed to reintegrate, to monitor, to secure, to de-radicalise people who are brought home are under significantly more pressure than they usually would be."
The pandemic has changed priorities. But surely the Australian government can keep tabs on 80 or fewer people. The Kurdish-led authorities who control the camps and prisons are begging countries to repatriate their nationals, saying they lack the capacity to properly guard and manage them. The UN counter-terrorism chief stated in July that more than 700 people have died recently in Al Hol and Roj camps due to "lack of medicine, lack of food."
The Australian government should not wait until Australians die or escape. The government should plan now for repatriation. In the meantime, they should do their utmost to improve conditions for their detained citizens and ensure they can communicate with family members back home.
Children who lived under ISIS and women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims. Others can be investigated and prosecuted under Australian law, which is at least some measure of accountability.
The indefinite detention without charge of Australians amounts to collective punishment. The inhumane and degrading treatment in camps and prisons is unlawful and may constitute torture. Abandoning citizens to indefinite, unlawful detention in filthy and dangerous conditions does not make Australia safer. Instead, it can fuel despair and violent radicalisation, and punishes innocent children for any crimes of their parents.
- Elaine Pearson is Australia director at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter: @PearsonElaine