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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Ben Doherty

Australian child pleads with prime minister to be rescued from Syrian detention camp

The squalid Roj detention camp in north-east Syria is home to about 40 Australians – 10 women and 30 children.
The squalid Roj detention camp in north-east Syria is home to about 40 Australians – 10 women and 30 children. Most have lived there for more than four years. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

An Australian child trapped in a Syrian detention camp has pleaded directly with prime minister Anthony Albanese to be rescued and brought home.

“I am one of the children left behind in Roj camp and I have spent half my life in a tent closed off by gates like a prison,” a voice message sent to the prime minister’s office says. “I have never been to school, laid in grass or climbed a tree.”

In the message sent from inside the camp, the child, who is under 10 years old, has pleaded with the prime minister “please don’t leave me behind”, after the government took a second group of Australians out of the camps more than seven months ago, with a commitment it would also repatriate those left behind.

“When my friends left, I thought I was going to go to Australia too. I had so much hope and was looking forward to Australia saving me from this place. But it’s been seven months, we are still here.”

About 40 Australians – 10 women and 30 children – remain detained inside Roj camp in north-east Syria, near the Iraqi border.

They are the wives, widows, and children of slain or jailed Islamic State fighters: most have been held in the squalid camp more than four years.

Some of the children were born in the camp and have never been outside it. Many of the women say they were coerced, tricked or forced into travelling to Syria by husbands who have since died.

A UN expert panel has repeatedly told Australia it has “deep concerns about the deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions of detention in Roj camp”, and warned that boys taken from their families are at risk of being “forcibly disappeared, and subject to sale, exploitation, abuse [and] torture.”

The Guardian understands there are Australians, too, held inside al-Hol camp, south of Roj, far larger and considered significantly more dangerous.

The child’s sex and age has been disguised in the voice message to avoid identification inside the camp. Guardian Australia has independently confirmed the veracity of the message.

“I am very sick,” the child says. “I took lots of needles. There is no hospital here to help us. I am always scared that the soldiers will walk in to our tent and take me or my sisters or my mum.”

One Australian teenager, Yusuf Zahab, died last year after being separated from his family. He was 11 when he was trafficked into Syria.

Australian families have been repeatedly told they face having their sons forcibly removed from the camp.

In the message, the child asks not to be left in Syria. “I just want to feel safe, live in a house and be a normal kid. Please, can you save me like you save the other Australian children that you took back. Please don’t leave me behind.”

Australia has undertaken two repatriation missions from the Syrian camps. In 2019, eight orphaned children, including a pregnant teenager, were returned to New South Wales from the camps.

And in October, four women and 13 children were brought back from Roj, also to NSW. That repatriation was politically contentious, with opposition leader Peter Dutton saying he held “grave concerns” those repatriated posed a “significant risk … that can’t be mitigated”.

Of the women returned to Australia last year, one, Mariam Raad, has been charged with entering, or remaining in, a “declared area” in 2014 – Syria’s al-Raqqa province, which was then under the control of Islamic State – in breach of federal law. Her case is before a NSW court.

All members of the Australian cohort inside Roj camp – 12 families – have had their identities confirmed by the Australian government. They are Australian citizens and legally entitled to re-enter the country. Several families in the camp are part of an imminent legal challenge in an Australian court to compel the government to repatriate them.

The offices of the prime minister and home affairs minister declined to comment on the child’s message, saying it was long-standing practice not comment on national security matters or individual cases. When the last repatriation was undertaken, home affairs minister Clare O’Neil said the government considers a “range of security, community and welfare factors in making the decision to repatriate”.

Mat Tinkler, chief executive of Save the Children Australia said Roj camp was “one of the worst places in the world to be a child”, and the Australian children held there were “highly vulnerable”.

“They have untreated shrapnel wounds from conflict, medical conditions that could be treated but they can’t access sufficient care, severe dental decay meaning they are malnourished, and psycho-social illnesses: these kids are in a really fragile state, and we hold grave concerns that some may not survive.”

Tinkler said the repatriation last October had raised hopes among the Australian group, most of whom live in close proximity in the same row of tents known as ‘Australia Street’, that they might also be quickly brought home.

“Now, there is absolute despair among the Australian children. They’ve grown up entirely in this camp, they’ve seen their friends and family members leave more than six months ago, but they are still there.”

Tinkler said only “political will” stood in the way of bringing the Australians home.

“There’s no security advice contrary to their repatriation, there’s no security capability gap - repatriations are relatively straightforward and manageable. There’s no diplomatic barrier. And the government has a track record: the families repatriated last year are settling in well, kids are attending school and women are retraining in the workforce.”

“These are innocent kids, these are Australian citizens, and they have an entitlement to return to their home country. If we don’t make the decision to bring them home to safety, inevitably a child will be injured or killed as a result.”

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