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Australian children stranded in Syria sue government to push for repatriation

Save the Children Australia filed a case on behalf of 17 children and nine women stranded in Al-Hol and Roj camps in northeastern Syria
A member of the Syrian Kurdish Asayish security forces stands guard during an inspection of tents at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, 28 August 2022 (AFP)

Seventeen Australian children and nine women have launched a legal case against the government in Canberra, asking to be repatriated after years of being stranded in northeastern Syria.

Save the Children Australia filed a case in the federal court on Monday on behalf of 17 children and nine women currently stranded in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps in the Hasakeh governorate, which hold relatives of suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters.

Following the 2019 collapse of the IS "caliphate", the area fell under the control of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

Save the Children Australia (STCA) said that the Australian government was "morally and legally" obliged to repatriate them.

"After spending four years living in hard conditions, this legal case was not the first choice of action by these Australian citizens in Syria," STCA chief executive Matt Tinkler said.

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"Every day these Australian children are left in Syria is another day their safety and wellbeing are at risk." 

A last resort

STCA said that the legal case was a last resort, and that it was acting as a litigation guardian for the children.

Since 2019, the aid group has called on the Australian government to repatriate children, who have been exposed to violence and traumatic experiences and suffer from poor education and health services.

STCA added that the children were being "punished for their parents' alleged actions and deprived of their basic rights by their own government".

The repatriation of Western nationals from northern Syria has been politically contentious in Australia and other countries such as France, Canada and the UK, where officials have cited national security concerns when arguing against the returns.

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In October last year, the Australian government repatriated four women and 13 children from the camps, which the STCA said demonstrated "clearly its ability to bring home its citizens".

Tinkler said there were initially hopes more rescue missions would follow, but these had slowly faded in the face of government "inaction".

"Australia's unwillingness to bring the remaining children home is a source of international shame," he said.

The Australia-based families of those still stuck in Syria said they had spent four years anxiously waiting to be reunited.

"The repatriations last October raised their hopes and ours," they said in a joint statement.

"It showed that the government could repatriate our family members, who are all Australian citizens, and we still hope that work will continue.

"They are our loved ones. They are Australians. They are sick. They are in danger. We must bring them to safety now."

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