Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government has yet to decide if it will appeal or accept a federal court order to repatriate Canadian men who have been jailed in northeastern Syria.
The men are suspected of joining ISIS during Syria’s civil war, but none have been charged.
“We’re looking at it carefully. Obviously – making sure we’re defending Canadians’ safety and security is always going to be a priority for us,” PM Trudeau said Monday, while taking questions from reporters during a visit to a quantum technology firm in Toronto.
The ruling applies to four men who were applicants in a federal court case referred to as “Bring Our Loved Ones Home,” or BOLOH. The case was first filed in 2021, and initially included 6 women and 13 children as well. All have been detained in camps or prisons for years.
MISSING PROOF OF LIFE
Last week, the government reached an agreement to repatriate the 19 women and children within a “mutually agreed time frame,” but not the men.
One day later, Federal Court Justice Henry Brown ruled it would be a violation of the Charter to abandon the men.
“Based on evidence before this Court, the conditions of the Applicant Canadian men are even more dire than those of the women and children who Canada has just agreed to repatriate,” wrote Justice Brown in an 85-page decision.
But the conditions of the men aren’t known. Lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who represents three of the four men, says, in some cases, Global Affairs Canada hasn’t provided proof of life to the families since 2019.
“Can I tell you for sure all four men are still alive? I can’t, but it’s certainly our hope that these four men will be able to be brought home to Canada,” said Greenspon.
Letta Tayler, the associate director of the crisis and conflict division of Human Rights Watch calls the decision “potentially groundbreaking.”
“This is the first court order that I am aware of that explicitly instructs a government to bring back men, ” she said.
Two years ago, the United Nations urged 57 nations to repatriate their citizens as more than 60,000 detainees languished in camps in Al Hol and Al Roj. Since then, more than 20, 000 people have been repatriated to various countries.
Canada has brought home just 3 women and 4 children since 2021.
Only the United States and Italy have repatriated men, but Tayler says the federal court ruling could influence other countries to do the same.
A POLICY THAT SEPARATES MOTHERS FROM THEIR CHILDREN
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the status of 20 Canadians who were not part of the BOLOH case, because they weren’t able to collect the necessary documents in time to join the legal challenge.
This group includes 2 men, one woman and 17 children.
Ten of the children are offspring of Canadian fathers who died overseas. Their mothers are not Canadians. Tayler says Global Affairs has sent the mothers letters informing them their children qualify for repatriation, but not the women.
“This is putting these mothers into an untenable situation, giving them this horrific choice.” Tayler said the mothers are being forced to cut ties with their children in order to provide them with a future.
“Canada says that it will consider the best interests of the child in all its decisions and that it believes that family unity should be retained whenever possible. Yet Ottawa has told these foreign mothers that they can’t come home with their children,” said Tayler.
According to the most recent report from Human Rights Watch, hundreds of people in the camps and prisons have died from malnutrition and disease and in violence perpetrated by extremists in the camp. Children are drowning and dying in tent fires, and being made victims of sexual predators. Their lives are also at risk as Turkish forces target Kurdish-held territory with air and artillery strikes.
“I am sure that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not want the blood of a Canadian man, woman or child on his hands, ” said Tayler. “This would be a terrible tragedy and a political failing.”
Two years after the BOLOH court case was filed in federal court, the lives of at least 43 Canadians, 30 of whom are children, hang in the balance as the Canadian government ponders what move to make next.