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A woman accompanies a child, from families of suspected Islamic State group, toward a plane before being repatriated to Russia, at the airport in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province, earlier this month. Photo: AFP

Australia repatriates Australian women and children from Syrian refugee camp

  • Four women, 13 children moved to New South Wales state, as part of bringing back from Syria those who are relatives of dead or jailed Islamic State fighters
  • Move lauded as a ‘long overdue step’ by Human Rights Watch, but has also sparked criticism from Australia’s opposition coalition

The Australian government has repatriated four Australian women and their 13 children from a Syrian refugee camp to New South Wales state, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said on Saturday.

The controversial repatriation, which has sparked criticism from the Liberal-National opposition, is part of bringing back from Syria dozens of Australian women and children who are relatives of dead or jailed Islamic State (Isis) fighters.

Australia first rescued eight children and grandchildren of two dead Isis fighters from a Syrian refugee camp in 2019, but has held off repatriating any others until now.

Hazara refugees plead for Australian resettlement: ‘the stress will kill me’

The repatriations are a politically contentious issue in Australia, with the former conservative government declaring the group posed a security threat.

“The decision to repatriate these women and their children was informed by individual assessments following detailed work by national security agencies,” O’Neil said.

The women and children left the al-Roj refugee camp in northern Syria on Thursday afternoon and crossed the border into Iraq to board a flight home, The Sydney Morning Herald and state broadcaster ABC reported on Friday.

The Labor-led government’s focus has been on the safety and security of “all Australians” and those involved in the repatriation, O’Neil said, adding the government had “carefully considered the range of security, community and welfare factors in making the decision to repatriate”.

Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter was among the group, said some of the children would need medical treatment.

“Everyone is in a great space but there are some health conditions,” he said. “A couple of the children have some serious health issues that we want to get checked out as soon as possible.”

Dabboussy said his daughter Mariam, 31, had been “coerced” into travelling to Syria by her now-dead husband, and posed no threat to Australia.

Syrian refugees prepare to leave the Arsal area in Bekaa valley, Lebanon on Wednesday, before their journey to their homes in Syria. Photo: EPA-EFE

The repatriation followed similar moves by the United States, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Canada, O’Neil said, adding that allegations of illegal activity would continue to be investigated by state and federal law enforcement authorities.

Local media previously reported some women could be charged with terrorism offences or for entering Syria illegally.

“Any identified offences may lead to law enforcement action being taken,” O’Neil said, adding that New South Wales was providing “extensive support services” to assist the group to reintegrate into Australia.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has labelled the move as not in the country’s best interest, saying the women have mixed with “people who hate our country, hate our way of life”.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Photo: AAP via AP

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said the government would continue to act on national security advice on the issue.

“The Australian government will always work to ensure that people are kept safe here in Australia, that is our priority,” he said, according to an official transcript of his remarks in Griffith, in regional New South Wales.

Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said it was a “long overdue step”.

“For years, the Australian government has abandoned its nationals to horrific conditions in locked camps in northeast Syria,” McNeill said.

“Australia can play a leadership role on counterterrorism through these orderly repatriations of its nationals, most of them children who never chose to live under Isis.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse