Australian girl collapses in Syrian camp, renewing calls to repatriate women and children

<span>Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

An 11-year-old Australian girl collapsed due to malnutrition in al-Roj camp in north-east Syria, an aid group says, raising fears it is only “a matter of time before an Australian child dies”.

Save the Children revealed the girl had needed help from ambulance medics, as it stepped up calls for the Morrison government to urgently repatriate dozens of Australian children and their mothers from the camp.

Those detained at the camp include family members of men who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for Isis. Supporters of the women and children say their individual stories vary but many were tricked into going there or were trafficking victims.

The Australian government repatriated eight Australian orphans from camps in Syria in 2019, but Save the Children says more than 60 Australian women and children remain in al-Roj. That tally includes about 40 children, of whom more than half are under six years of age.

The aid and advocacy group said it had learned about the concerning malnutrition incident through contacts in the camp late last month, describing it as an example of how “the Australian children are suffering”.

“We received reports an 11-year-old Australian girl collapsed due to malnutrition and had to be attended to by ambulance medics,” the deputy chief executive of Save the Children Australia, Mat Tinkler, said.

“There are also increasing reports of violence. We fear it’s a matter of time before an Australian child dies.”

A source familiar with the situation said the 11-year-old girl’s condition had stabilised after she received medical attention but she remained “fragile”.

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Australian children and their families were moved from al-Hawl camp – where there are reports of increasing violence – to al-Roj in September 2020.

The Australian government has said it “remains concerned” about the conditions in the camps in north-east Syria but maintains it will only consider repatriations on a case-by-case basis.

The government has also raised concerns about putting officials at risk during repatriation operations, saying it is focused on the “protection of Australians and the Australian community”.

Tinkler said there was no practical or legal barrier to Australia bringing home the children from the camp, given both the Kurdish administration and the US government have offered their support to extract the Australians from the camps, but “what’s missing is the political will”.

“The Australian children are innocent and should not be left in these camps – they belong in Australia and our government should urgently repatriate the children and their mothers,” he said.

Kamalle Dabboussy, whose 30-year-old Australian daughter Mariam remains in the camp with her children aged seven, five and two, has been involved in talks with government officials to find a solution.

“The dialogue continues with government but at some stage it needs to move from dialogue into action – and it’s stuck at the dialogue stage,” Dabboussy said.

Dabboussy has previously gone public with the story of how his daughter had been on a family holiday in Turkey in 2015 when she was misled into going to the Syrian border and was then taken into the country at gunpoint.

Mariam’s husband reportedly fought for Isis and died three months later while Mariam was pregnant with their second child.

Dabboussy said on Sunday there were a number of misconceptions about the camps and the women and children there.

“These are not refugee camps – these are detention centres or prisons,” he said, adding that food and water was rationed.

“They are being held in a prison without any charges against them nor any evidence being produced against them and children remain with them when they should never remain in a prison environment.”

Dabboussy said the women and children led there were “some of the first victims of Isis”. They had been “trafficked and they remain at the risk of being retrafficked”.

Save the Children has written to the foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, to urge the government to take immediate action to bring the remaining children and their mothers to Australia.

The letter says the children in the camp are “extremely vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, and physical harm”.

It also points to a recent increase in moves by foreign governments to repatriate children and women from north-east Syria. In the latest such case, the Kurdish-led administration in the region handed over to the Netherlands a Dutch woman, her two young sons, and a Dutch girl earlier this month.

The Greens senator Janet Rice has also voiced concerns about the “dreadful conditions in the camps”.

In the latest round of Senate estimates hearings, Rice asked Australian officials whether they were considering the offer of support from both the US and the Kurdish authorities to move Australian citizens from the camps to the border with Iraq, where they could be safely met by Australian officials.

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Australia’s ambassador for counter-terrorism, Roger Noble, replied: “The government’s policy on repatriation is predicated on the protection of Australians and the Australian community. It looks at repatriation on a case-by-case basis.”

Noble added that the US offers to help “would be considered in the context of that policy – case by case”.

Payne said the government was weighing up “a range of issues” but had been “extremely clear – absolutely crystal-clear – in consistently warning Australians that supporting or joining terrorist groups in Syria or elsewhere put lives at risk – their own and others”.

“Notwithstanding that, we understand the extremely difficult circumstances, and we are concerned about the welfare of Australians in … camps in Syria, and their children,” Payne told the Senate hearing.

“But it is a very dangerous and unpredictable region. We’re talking to our international partners. Yes, in answer to your question, we are talking to humanitarian agencies about the environment on the ground.”

Save the Children said it was “committed to working with the Australian government to support the safe repatriation of Australian children and women, and continued support through their process of reintegration, and medical rehabilitation”.