As conflict in Syria approaches its 9-year mark, any hope for light at the end of the tunnel is far from view. An increase of violence has made the situation even more dire, as conditions in Syria are arguably at their worst since the start of the war. While we’re not lacking knowledge of what is happening on the ground, the most critical consequence of the man-made disaster has largely been ignored—the future of the children living through this vile war.
As many as 5 million children in Syria request some form of humanitarian assistance, and there are 2.5 million children who are living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Since 1 December 2019 alone, 900,000 people have been displaced in northwest Syria, 60 per cent being children.
Most of these children are living through the most diabolical conditions imaginable, having not only witnessed horrendous and unspeakable atrocities, but having done so while lacking proper nutrition, access to education, water and sanitation, basic healthcare, shelter, and identity documentation.
Most harrowing, these children have lacked the opportunity to have a childhood, all through no fault of their own.
Admittedly, when we see these huge figures it is difficult to process where to start.
Humanitarian aid organisations such as UNICEF, ICRC, UNHCR, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières (to name a few) have been on the ground, providing the best band-aid to the problem where they can.
Women and children, who have taken refuge in crowded neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, are among the luckier ones, however these countries’ resources for helping their own citizens and refugees are slowly depleting.
While these combined efforts must not be undervalued, we need all able governments to step up and do their part for this neglected generation—and this includes Australian children who are stuck in the conflict.
Human Rights Watch report more than 60 Australian women and children are held in barren camps in northeast Syria, 47 being children under the age of five. The Morrison government has made little plans to address this matter, as it believes extraction would be too difficult—and repatriating mothers who could be radicalised carries a security risk for Australia.
Despite the government’s narrative, Australia has an obligation to repatriate Australian children and their mothers. Not only as a State who ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and not only because humanely speaking, it is the morally right thing to do—but because in reality, it is strategically the most risk-averse move for Australia to protect itself from future harm.
If Australian citizens are indeed radicalised, we have plenty more resources available to rehabilitate and prosecute those who need to be held accountable than most countries.
As mentioned, since 47 of the estimated 60 Australians citizens are under the age of five, it is difficult to argue these children pose a security risk if repatriated to Australia.
Additionally, if it is determined the mothers are radicalised, isn’t it in Australia’s best interest to intervene as soon as possible to prevent children from adopting the same ideology as they grow older? And if we do not intervene, who will?
The alternative paints a bleak future for children. Do we trust Iraq to hold fair trials and take care of the children if their mothers are sentenced to life in prison, or death? Are we willing to risk our women and children falling in the hands of the Syrian regime?
If we choose to abandon them, the inaction would be considered by some as further evidence against western society, as we so easily discarded our most vulnerable citizens.
It would motivate more support against the West and push more people towards supporting IS.
Lastly, why would we let entire children’s lives be ruined for the careless decisions of their parents? They have already suffered enough and been forced beyond their will to barely survive each day, in a place without their choosing.
Wouldn’t we want to repatriate and rehabilitate these children, so they establish some sense of normalcy and are not stuck in the same cycle of violence, likely to repeat what they have been subjected to?
It seems recent reports that a three-year-old Australian girl will most likely lose her fingers due to frostbite—and that the United States has even offered to help extract Australian citizens in Syria—have pushed some form of action. The Australian Federal Police have announced they obtained 42 arrest warrants for Australian men and women who travelled to Syria in support of terrorist activity, which could signal the first step towards repatriation.
While we anticipate the government’s next moves, my hope is that Australian children will be removed from Syria and brought to Australia immediately, so they can finally experience the childhood they are entitled to. The longer these children live exposed to violence, extreme religious ideologies, and trauma, the more difficult integration into Australian society will be.
Not only this, the likelihood of them becoming future supporters of IS increases.
The prospect of retaliation against the country which abandoned them could be a very realistic consequence of inaction, which is the very risk Australia claims to be mitigating in its current policy.
Marguerite Elson holds a Masters of International Law & International Relations from UNSW and currently works at UNICEF Australia.
This article was commissioned for YAIA's International Women's Day series.