Australia’s refusal to repatriate and prosecute foreign fighters being held in camps in North-Eastern Syria demonstrates an unwillingness to act in the interest of the international community and could have long term repercussions. All states have a humanitarian duty to these fighters, regardless of their radicalised nature.
However, Australia also has a strategic duty, as a member of the international community, to attempt to end the cycle of conflict in the Syrian-Iraqi area. ISIS is not solely a Syrian issue, it is not a Middle Eastern issue, it is an international issue and it requires an international response.
The Islamic State has been losing control of territory in Syria and Iraq. As a result, refugee camps in North-Eastern Syria are being inundated by refugees and displaced persons fleeing from the heavy combat areas. As the numbers within these camps increase the conditions are deteriorating. Kurdish officials and Syrian Democratic Forces are not equipped with the resources or capacity to provide adequate arrangements for thousands of non-combatants seeking refuge. The conditions within these camps are already unsafe and inhumane, with the UN reporting extreme cases of hypothermia, pneumonia and starvation.
The United Nations, United States and Kurdish officials have all publicly called on states to take back their foreign fighters. However, Australia has refused. Newly elected Prime Minister Scott Morrison has clearly outlined that he is not willing to risk Australian lives to save those that have fled to the Islamic State. However, the Australian Government’s position is difficult to comprehensively gage. In late-June they claimed that individuals seeking to return would be assessed on a “case-by-case” basis.
It is estimated that 90 per cent of those within the North Eastern refugee camps are women and children. Foreigners within these camps include an estimated 3,500 children, including those that were brought over by their parents and those who were born within the conflict. However, the willingness of the Australian Government to accept and repatriate the remaining Australia citizens over in the Islamic State seems to be minimal.
In early July Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton proposed newly amended legislation that would allow the Minister to issue a Temporary Exclusion Order preventing Australian citizens seeking to return for a period of up to two years. By adopting this position Australia is demonstrating to the international community a lack of consideration for international security issues and human rights. As a country that promotes a belief in human rights and the rights of the child, Australia should prioritise child protection and security over their pride and work to re-patriate, rehabilitate or prosecute those Australians that fled to Syria.
Children should not pay the ultimate price for their parent’s decisions and the children born out of Australian-ISIS relationships not only have a legal right to become Australian citizens, but a right to survive despite their parent’s poor choices. Australia needs to act to ensure this next generation is given the opportunities to become lawful citizens and to ensure they do not lead the next Caliphate.
Australia’s responsibility to repatriate foreign fighters extends beyond humanitarian concern. There is an evident strategic element. Syria and Iraq have long been hotbeds for conflict. Without an effective resolution within the area, this cycle will inevitably continue. The Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Forces alone do not have the legal systems, nor the judicial capacity, to effectively deal with the remnants of this war once it is over.
The conditions in these camps will continue to worsen, and the anti-Western sentiment will rise, only re-fuelling a desire for conflict.
By removing and prosecuting those Australians that fled to fight for ISIS, their potential for further involvement is lessened. Australia cannot close its eyes to the issues it does want to deal with.
Grace Anderson is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.