Australia is reportedly set to repatriate dozens of its nationals stuck in Syrian detention camps who are relatives of Daesh fighters, following years of hesitation and neglect to do so.
Media outlets on Friday reported that Australia will repatriate 16 women and 42 children of Daesh fighters, although the Australian government did not provide direct confirmation at the time.
According to the news agency, Reuters, the spokesperson for Australia's Home Affairs Minister, Clare O'Neil, said in an email that Canberra's "overriding priority is the protection of Australians and Australia's national interests, informed by national security advice". She declined to comment further due to "the sensitive nature of the matters involved".
The Australian government's decision to finally repatriate dozens of its nationals – who consist of women and children – was reportedly made following a secret mission by the country's security intelligence agency.
Following the territorial and military defeat of the terror group, Daesh, in 2019, its surviving fighters were captured and detained in prisons while their family members who were with them were taken to camps in north-east Syria, where they are kept for an indefinite period of time. Conditions in the Al-Hol and Roj camps have been described as dire, with a rising crime rate and a lack of sufficient sanitation and resources.
Many of the foreign nationals in the camps continue to wait for their home countries – or those of their parents – to repatriate them. That process has been slow, however, especially amongst western states which have been reluctant to bring them home due to the threats they would allegedly pose to national security.
Concerns over the danger of potentially radicalised nationals returning home, which were raised in this case by her counterpart in Australia's opposition, were not given an immediate response by O'Neil.
On Monday, the country's Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, stated on the broadcaster, Channel 7 that there are currently around 40 Australian children living in a camp within Syria, and said that their mothers were manipulated into fleeing to Syria and marrying Daesh fighters at a young age.
"When they come back to Australia, I think it's going to be very important that the children, in particular, receive counselling," she said. "But I think for everybody involved, there will be an ongoing expectation that our security and intelligence agencies will stay in contact with them and monitor them."
The last time Canberra repatriated any of its nationals from Syria was when it rescued eight children and grandchildren of two dead Daesh fighters. Earlier this year, the United Nations called on Australia to revive its repatriation efforts, with experts also later condemning the conditions at the Syrian camps where an Australian teenager died.