LONDON: More than 30 Australian women and children detained in a Syrian detention camp are taking legal action against their government, arguing that it has the authority and obligation to repatriate them to Australia, The Guardian reported on Monday.
The Australians, who are wives, widows and children of dead or jailed Daesh fighters, remain detained inside the Roj camp in northeast Syria. Most have been in the camp for more than four years and some of the children born at the location have never left.
Many of the women claim their husbands coerced or manipulated them into traveling to Syria. None has been charged with a crime or received a warrant for arrest, The Guardian reported.
The Australians are being forcibly held by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and its military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Save the Children Australia, which represents 12 Australian women and their 21 children, argues in federal court filings that Australia is a part of the coalition that “specifically supports the AANES to maintain the detention of persons, including women and children.”
According to the court documents, AANES has openly urged coalition countries, including Australia, to repatriate citizens.
There is no safety issue with traveling to camps, the organization added, as journalists, family members, and nongovernmental organization employees often travel in and out.
Save the Children claims that Australia has effective control over the detention of Australians and that the government must prove that the women and children are lawfully detained, or that Australia cannot repatriate them, “or bring their bodies to the court.”
Michael Newton, a Vanderbilt University law school professor, has argued in an affidavit that Australia “enjoys the practical ability, by virtue of exercising de facto authority, to make arrangements for ending the extended detention of Australian women and children in northeastern Syria.”
He added: “As a logical corollary, Australian officials have the means, in my expert opinion, of securing the release and subsequent return of the Australian women and children in northeastern Syria.”
The Australian government has said in court documents that it “does not have control of the remaining Australian women and children” and cannot be forced to return them, The Guardian reported.
It claims it is not responsible for Australians traveling to Syria or being detained, and that camp detention is at the “absolute discretion” of the AANES, over which the government has no power.
Even if repatriation was agreed by Syrian forces, “the commonwealth would need to arrange for their safe repatriation having regard to the security and geopolitical situation that exists at the relevant time.”
Save the Children Australia CEO Mat Tinkler said the legal challenge was necessary because “these innocent Australian children … have been abandoned by their own government.”
He added: “Despite countless opportunities to repatriate these families, the Australian government has ultimately failed in its duty to bring all of its citizens home to safety.”
Eight orphaned children, including a pregnant teenager, were returned to New South Wales in 2019. Four women and 13 children were also rescued from Roj in October last year.
The government has said that it is committed to repatriating all Australians who may be safely evacuated, but has not stated when another operation may be carried out.