A top United Nations official has urged the Canadian government not to split up a Quebec woman and her six children who are being held in desperate conditions in a Syrian detainee camp.
In a letter from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights, the Canadian government was warned of the “irreparable trauma” the children would suffer if they were separated from their mother.
The woman, a Canadian citizen, has two daughters and two sons who were born in Canada, another son who was born in Raqqa, Syria, and a sixth child who was born in the Kurdish-run al-Roj camp in northeastern Syria.
“We … urge the joint repatriation of (the woman) and her six children to Canda and to be provided with all the safeguards and protections so abjectly absent for them in Roj detention camp,” the letter states.
Written in May, the letter was only just released publicly following a 60-day period during which Canada was invited, and declined, to reply.
Raqqa was the self-declared capital of the Islamic State terror group, or ISIS, which conducted a campaign of brutal abuses and filmed executions across a swath of Syria and Iraq. Al-Roj and a second camp, al-Hol, were set up to hold the tens of thousands of people, including women, children and fighters fleeing the group’s territory following ISIS’s military defeat.
The letter describes “an extremely traumatized family in very poor health.”
The mother has infections from injuries to her thigh and buttocks area that required surgery. She is “mentally traumatized” from a December 2021 attack suffered at the hands of camp guards as well as “multiple imprisonments and torture leading to broken bones.” More recently, the woman suffered burns in a tent fire, said her Canadian lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon.
The children have suffered a range of psychological and physical health problems, including repeated cases of hepatitis, parasites, hair loss, calcium deficiencies, anxiety, depression and stress, the letter says.
The children, who are now aged 13, 12, 11, nine, six and three, have been offered repatriation to Canada but the mother’s bid to leave the camp and return home has been refused.
The Special Rapporteur’s letter says Canadian authorities have proposed that the mother willingly send her children on to Canada without her. The children, it says, would be “placed as three pairs of two children through social services.”
“While we are clear that the children’s repatriation can only be considered in their best interest, we stress that preventing family separation and preserving family unity are essential components of the child protection system,” says the letter.
“Separation from parents should not happen unless such separation is considered to be in the best interest of the child, subject to judicial review and in accordance with applicable law and procedures.”
The UN Special Rapporteur has appealed to Canada on behalf of other detainees.
In May 2020, it took up the case of a five-year-old orphan whose parents — suspected terrorists — had been killed in an airstrike. A few months later, the girl, Amira, became the first Canadian citizen to be repatriated from the detention camps.
A year later, in November 2021, it appealed on behalf of detainee Kimberly Polman, who was reportedly denied treatment for life-threatening health problems. Canadian officials responded in January 2022 that the government had no legal obligation to help citizens detained abroad and limited means to do so, given that Canada maintained no diplomatic presence in Syria. Nevertheless, Polman, along with Montreal’s Oumaima Chouay and Chouay’s two children, were returned to Canada in October 2022.
A Federal Court case seeking to force Ottawa to bring home most of the Canadian male, female and minor detainees in Syria resulted in a negotiated agreement to bring home numerous women and children earlier this year. The Quebec woman and her children were not part of that deal, and Greenspon said he is considering asking a judge to intervene on their behalf.
Neither the Federal Court judge nor the UN Special Rapporteur has convinced Canada that they must bring home the male citizens who are being held — so far without charge.
A judge ruled earlier this year that Canada had an obligation to help its detained citizens return home under a section of the Charter granting Canadians the right to enter, remain in and leave the country, but that decision was overturned on appeal. Greenspon said he intends to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Greenspon admitted that the UN appeal carries no legal weight and puts no binding obligations on the Canadian government, but argued that “it should have persuasive humanitarian weight.”
The letter both appeals to Canada’s nobler instincts and warns that the country risks breaching international law and conventions. It notes, for example, that the Quebec mother cannot, in her present circumstances, give “meaningful” consent to separate from her children.
“Should (her) consent be considered as the basis for the repatriation of the children without her, this could amount to forced and arbitrary separation, a clear violation of international law,” the letter states. “We highlight that the harm of separation of children from their parents is the subject of evolving consideration by international criminal law.”