UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says it's "absolutely essential" countries such as Canada repatriate Canadian women and children currently being held in prison camps in Syria.
Guterres made the remarks to chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton when asked if the Liberal government's lack of diplomatic staff on the ground and fears over possible links with ISIS are sufficient reasons not to bring them home.
"We understand the concerns of security of countries, but we believe that countries also must have the capacity to deal with those problems of security," he said in an exclusive interview airing Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.
"And especially in relation to children and women, I believe it's absolutely essential that they have an opportunity to to go back."
Global Affairs Canada told CBC News that it is aware of "Canadian citizens being detained by Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria and is particularly concerned with cases of Canadian children in the region." It would not say, however, how many Canadian children may be imprisoned in the country.
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Speaking at the foreign affairs committee earlier this month, human rights lawyer Paul Champ told MPs there are 64,000 people being held at the Al-Hol and Al-Roj prison camps in Syria, 25 of them Canadian children.
CBC's Margaret Evans, who visited the region this week, said Al-Roj camp is under the official supervision of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, (SDF), which are running what's known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
The camp manager told Evans that there are 784 families of ISIS militants in the camp, totalling 2,618 individuals including Syrians, Iraqis and women from a number of other countries, including about 30 Canadians, the majority of them young children.
Dying from dehydration
Global Affairs Canada said that because of the security situation on the ground, its ability to provide "any kind of consular assistance in Syria remains extremely limited."
The department also told CBC News that consular officials are, however, working actively with Syrian Kurdish authorities to "seek information on Canadians in their custody." The United States and Germany have, however, been able to provide consular assistance to citizens in the region.
Public Safety Canada says that it is aware of an estimated 190 Canadian extremist travellers that are currently abroad, half of which travelled to Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
On top of that, some 60 foreign fighters have returned to Canada, Public Safety Canada said.
Champ said that the UN has reported that many of the children in the camps are dying from malnutrition, dehydration, diarrhea and hypoglycemia.
"Their daily lives could not be more desperate were it not also for the violence in these camps," he said. "Exploitation and abuse is rife. People are killed by gunfire almost daily."
Guterres told Barton that the UN has worked with several governments to repatriate citizens and will continue to do so.
"We have a very clear position on this issue. We believe that people should have the possibility to voluntarily go back to their countries of origin," he said.
You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.