Australian women and children have been forcibly removed from Syria’s al-Hawl refugee camp where widows and orphans of Islamic State fighters are being detained, according to witnesses from inside the camp.
Four women and 10 children were reportedly handcuffed and driven away in a white van by unidentified men on Saturday night.
The deputy chief executive of Save the Children, Mat Tinkler, said he was deeply concerned about the welfare of the Australians.
“It’s hard to imagine more vulnerable children than these Aussie kids, who have endured another brutal summer in northeast Syria living in a camp without running water or adequate health services, and where people live in flimsy tents at the mercy of the elements,” he said.
The Australians in al-Hawl camp are family members of former foreign fighters who have been captured or killed.
None of the women in the camp have been charged as being combatants, though arrest warrants have been issued for some, and many were coerced, forced or tricked into travelling to Syria.
Their whereabouts and the identities of the men who took them are still unknown.
Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter and grandchildren are in the camp, but were not taken, told the ABC the Australian women and children had been taken by unidentified men in the middle of the night, and none had yet made contact with their relatives.
“There was a lot of screaming and shouting,” he heard from others in the camp. “Kids were crying … It was very traumatic the way they were taken. They were apparently handcuffed.”
Before Saturday night, there were 19 Australian women and 47 Australian children in the camp, and the youngest child is one-year-old. The government is aware of their identities and the bona fides of their citizenship or right to claim that citizenship.
On Tuesday, Dabboussy urged the Australian government to take up the offers made by the US, the Red Cross and the UN to help repatriate its citizens from the camp.
Tinkler said the government should “do everything possible” to ensure their safety.
“Australia has had numerous opportunities and offers of assistance to bring these Aussie kids and their mothers home from one of the most dangerous places on Earth,” he said.
“The government must do everything possible to ensure the safety of these Australian children and women, and those remaining in al-Hawl.”
Women in the camp have previously said they would agree to monitoring, such as control orders, if they returned to Australia.
But Canberra has consistently refused to repatriate its citizens, despite the urgings of the US and Kurdish forces running the camp.
A small group of Australian orphans has been repatriated home, but no family members with adults have been brought back since the Australians were taken to the camp a year ago.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has said the government is not prepared to risk other Australian lives in any repatriation effort.
He said some of the Australians in the camp were “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.
“So I don’t think it should come as a surprise when we say we’re not going to send our soldiers to rescue people of this nature.” (Source: The Guardian)