Canada shirking responsibility for families of ISIS militants in detention camps: Syrian Kurdish official

Kurdish authorities responsible for the prisons and detention camps holding ISIS militants and their family members in northern Syria have accused Canada of shirking its responsibility by failing to bring Canadian women and children home, despite offers of assistance.

Kurdish authorities say one camp has Canadian woman with 2 sick children

Seven young children, some holding hands, are seen walking along a paved road as women watch in the distance.
There are about 35 Canadian women and children in the al-Roj detention camp in northeastern Syria. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Kurdish authorities responsible for the prisons and detention camps holding ISIS militants and their family members in northern Syria have accused Canada of shirking its responsibility by failing to bring Canadian women and children home, despite offers of assistance.

"Let's leave the ISIS militants aside," said Abdulkarim Omar, the de facto foreign minister for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), in an interview with CBC News on Monday.

"Canada firstly needs to take the responsibility toward the women and kids who haven't been a part of committing crimes. But they're ignoring it."

The comments come just over a week after a former U.S. diplomat proved willing and able to do what the Canadian government apparently had not.

Peter Galbraith travelled to Iraq and then overland to northern Syria to collect the four-year-old daughter of a woman who wanted her child to have a better life with relatives in Canada than that on offer in a detention camp.

Omar said that less than a month ago, he flagged to Ottawa what he described as a humanitarian case involving another mother and two children suffering from undisclosed health issues.

"We told them their situation is not good, and they are aware of it," he said. 

WATCH | See what conditions are like in al-Hol detention camp in Syria:

Inside an ISIS detention camp in Syria

3 years ago
Duration 2:39
CBC News gets an inside look of a detention camp in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria that's home to tens of thousands of people and where ISIS sleeper cells control much of what happens. But many of those inside simply just want to go home.

'We don't know why they stopped'

The Canadian government did not have an immediate comment.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the federal government "facilitated the travel documents" for the four-year-old girl freed from the Islamic State detention camp, but did not organize her exit from the camp.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair Blair has said the situation in Syria is "a fairly complex and often dangerous one and so the repatriation of any individual from that environment has been challenging." But he said the federal government is willing to offer support where it can.

When asked about the situation on Tuesday morning, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said that Canada can "show compassion for the innocents while still taking a strong, zero-tolerance approach to people who take the freedom and opportunity that Canada represents and go to commit horrific terror acts abroad."  

There are an estimated eight Canadian men accused of being ISIS fighters in Kurdish-run prisons and about 35 women and children in a detention camp called Al Roj, close to both the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

Abdulkarim Omar, the de facto foreign minister for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), says Canada needs to take responsibility for the Canadian women and children who have been caught in Syrian detention camps for ISIS militants. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"Canada was the first country who communicated with us, asking for their citizens," said Omar. "At that time [in 2018], we were ready to hand them over ― the militants and the women."

Omar said the administrative process was nearly done. "We even did the passport application forms, and suddenly [Canada] stopped [the process]. But we don't know why they stopped." 

This would coincide with details provided by one of the Canadian detainees at Al Roj camp in an interview with CBC last week. 

The woman, a mother of two who asked not to be identified for the sake of her children, said she was initially told she would be transferred to Canadian custody when she was caught trying to leave ISIS-held territory back in October 2017. 

She said she was put in prison for a few months before being transferred to Al Roj, where there was only one other Canadian at the time. She then said they were both sent back to the prison with the view of being transferred to Canadian custody.

"But then apparently everything went wrong and we stayed [in the prison] for one month until they brought us back here."

WATCH | CBC's Margaret Evans speaks with some of the Canadian wives of ISIS militants in al-Roj detention camp:

The Canadian mothers inside an ISIS detention camp

3 years ago
Duration 2:45
As word spreads in the al-Roj Syrian detention camp for families of ISIS fighters that a four-year-old Canadian girl was freed, other mothers grapple with sending their own children to safety. Some say they couldn't survive without them, while others beg Canada to bring them to safety.

In recent weeks, AANES, along with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ― who were key in defeating ISIS territorially in 2019 ― have begun discussing the need for a regional tribunal able to try and convict foreign nationals who fought for the Islamic State.

Officials with AANES and SDF insist that it's not a new idea, but it does mark a subtle shift in position.

Up to this point, the Syrian Kurds had been far more vocal about the need for foreign nations to come and get their people and try them at home. 

Now, the pressure seems to be to put them on trial in Syria.

"That's what we want," said Omar. "I would not say an international court, but something similar to it, with the co-operation of countries whose fighters are in prison here."

'Justice needs to take place'

It's not clear what brought about the change of heart, although one possibility is simply that it became clear no one was listening to Syrian Kurds' pleas to come and collect their citizens. 

Another is that a quasi-international tribunal, however unlikely, would offer legitimacy to the Syrian Kurds and their autonomous administration in a country still in the midst of a civil war.

"This is the only solution, especially when the international community doesn't want to take [the children] back," said Omar, when asked about strategy. 

"What should be the alternative? Should we release them?  Justice needs to take place."

People are seen in a detention camp.
The al-Roj detention camp is near the borders of both Iraq and Turkey. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Omar says the Syrian Kurds can't handle the management of the large number of prisoners on their own. 

They're struggling in particular with policing the largest detention camp, known as Al Hol, where ISIS still manages to smuggle in weapons and influence. 

An estimated 60,000 people live in the camp, which comprises those displaced after the fall of the Islamic State and the families and dependents of the ISIS militants themselves.  

"We're facing a huge problem with the kids in those camps," said Omar.

"Those kids are victims and this is a moral case, and that's why their countries need to do their duties towards them. If they grow up [in the camp], they will turn into terrorists." 

Women and children walk down a road in a detension camp in Syria.
Women and children in al-Roj detention camp in northeastern Syria (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)


Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.