Politics

Australia won't repatriate children stuck in squalid Syrian IS camp during coronavirus pandemic

The Al-Hawl refugee camp is home to Australian wives and children of former IS fighters. Source: Press Association Images

Foreign Minister Marise Payne says it's too risky to repatriate dozens of Australian wives and children of captured IS fighters despite pressure from the United States.

Australian wives and children of captured IS fighters are set to remain stranded in Syrian camps because the coronavirus pandemic makes it too dangerous to repatriate them. 

The Australian government's hardened stance comes despite pressure from the United States for countries to bring back and prosecute IS-linked nationals and their family members. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne was questioned about the matter at the latest Australian-US Ministerial consultation in Washington DC. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State.
POOL AFP

She said the coronavirus outbreak had stretched the resources that would be required to monitor radicalised people and further complicated the global travel situation.

"Movement in Syria and in the region is now more complex than ever and at home, we see our states and territories very stretched, as an understatement in some cases, because of the impact of COVID-19 infections," she told reporters. 

"We will not put our communities at home at risk, nor our officials abroad, to extract people from Syria under current conditions."

There are currently some 47 Australian children and 20 women living in refugee camps in northeast Syria, according to Save the Children. 

Many have been residing in the al-Hawl camp for years, following the fall of the IS terror group.

At a joint press conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed his country's request for nations to repatriate any fighters in the camps and prosecute them. 

"We’ve made very clear our expectation is that the places that these fighters are being detained may not be sustainable and that we need to work with each host country to bring those people back and bring them to justice back in their home," he said. 

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following the 30th AUSMIN in Washington DC.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following the 30th AUSMIN in Washington DC.
POOL AFP

Save the Children has warned for months about the danger of the "desolate" conditions in these camps, citing a lack of running water and limited health facilities. 

Chief executive Mat Tinkler said many other countries have already repatriated citizens, including France - which did so just last month.

"There aren’t any excuses left. The Australian government needs to bring these Australian children and their mothers home," he said. 

“The alternative – leaving Aussie kids languishing in a war zone – is unthinkable."

Save the Childrens Mat Tinkler (left) and Kamalle Dabboussy (right).
Save the Childrens Mat Tinkler (left) and Kamalle Dabboussy (right).
AAP

Kamalle Dabboussy has been working to have his daughter Mariam, his grandchildren and other Australians released from Syria.

He told SBS News he is disappointed the Australian government has continued to reject offers to help repatriate its citizens.

"It continues to ignore the plight of these vulnerable women and children," he said.

"It's a horrendous situation that they face." 

He believes the government should seize the coronavirus situation as an opportunity to act, rather than further delay their return.

"Please act before we have a death of an Australian ... before one of my grandchildren succumb and die," he said.

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