A girl stands in the annex of al-Hol, a camp in northeast Syria detaining thousands of foreign women and children from countries including Canada as family members of Islamic State (ISIS) suspects.
© 2019 Sam Tarling
April marks the beginning of Ramadan for Muslims worldwide, a month of fasting, patience, and compassion that many here in Canada will mark surrounded by friends and family. But for some Canadian-Muslims, there is little to celebrate given the increasingly desperate plight of their loved ones unlawfully detained in northeast Syria.
With no end in sight to their misery, an estimated four dozen Canadian Muslims have spent three or more years arbitrarily detained in squalid prisons and camps for people suspected of ties to the Islamic State (ISIS).
During his time as Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has worked to create stronger relationships among Muslim communities in Canada, consistently releasing statements at the beginning of Ramadan, visiting Muslim community centers to break fast with worshippers, and even saying the values celebrated during Ramadan are inherently Canadian. But these efforts fall short when the Canadian government abandons a group of Canadian-Muslims, more than half of them young children, in life-threatening, deeply degrading, and often inhumane conditions in northeast Syria.
Several of Canada’s allies have repatriated some or many of nationals from the same prisons and camps holding the Canadians. The United States government has even offered to help Canada repatriate its citizens. And the Kurdish-led authorities who oversee these prisons and camps have urged home countries to repatriate their citizens. Yet Canada’s approach has been piecemeal at best, allowing only three Canadians to come home so far. In January 2021, Global Affairs Canada even developed a secret policy framework, specifically for this group of Canadian Muslim detainees, asserting that the government has no legal obligation to repatriate them.
But Canada does have an obligation under international law to protect its citizens if they face serious human rights abuses abroad and to provide consular assistance without discrimination. This Ramadan, if Prime Minister Trudeau really wants to support Canadian-Muslims, he should take urgent action to safely repatriate these detainees, starting with those most vulnerable. They should be rehabilitated, reintegrated and, as appropriate, investigated and prosecuted for any crimes they may have committed, just like any other Canadian.