Government and governance, Law | Australia, Asia, The World

13 May 2022

The dire situation of women and children in Syrian refugee camps raises questions about Australia’s obligations to repatriate citizens trapped in camps and Australia’s human rights record, Chris Fitzgerald writes. 

In February this year, 12 United Nations special rapporteurs wrote to the Australian Government about the conditions facing the Australians currently held in Syrian refugee camps.

In addition to international pressure to repatriate 46 Australian citizens, including 30 children, the special rapporteurs wrote: “repatriation is the only legal and humane response to the complex and precarious human rights, humanitarian and security situation faced by those currently deprived of their liberty in North-East Syria.”

The Australian Government however has not yet intervened, viewing these people as a security concern, many of whom are the wives and children of now deceased foreign fighters who left Australia to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS).

A recent report from World Vision highlighted the miserable conditions women and children experience in these camps. According to the report, tens of thousands of women face chronic levels of violence, neglect and abuse, and children suffer from malnourishment and verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Girls are vulnerable to child marriage and boys are either forced to work or are susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups.

This is a direct result of the instability caused by the decade long Syrian Civil War that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and seen war crimes committed by all sides in the conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that over 150,000 civilians have died in the conflict. Most of these deaths have occurred at the hands of the Syrian Government and its loyalist forces, though the Observatory estimates that over 10,000 civilians died as a result of attacks by foreign powers, mostly Russian.

The conflict caused one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with over 10 million people requiring urgent humanitarian assistance, including millions of children. Half of the Syrian population has been displaced, with almost six million people fleeing to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.

Despite conditions in the refugee camps violating their dignity and human rights, combined with the ongoing instability in Syria, the Australian Government has failed to meet their obligations under international law to assist these at-risk people to return home to Australia.

Firstly, Australia is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under this treaty, citizens of a country should in no way be deprived of the right to enter their own country.

While Australian citizenship can be revoked by the Minister for Immigration (under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007), this sets a dangerous precedent considering the people concerned are vulnerable women and children who are facing intolerable conditions not of their own choosing.

While security concerns should be considered, that does not exempt Australia from its obligations under international law to allow citizens to return home.

The same Convention prohibits both state and non-state actors from arbitrarily detaining people against their will and to ensure that the rights to humane treatment and freedom of movement are maintained.

The intolerable conditions these people face and their lack of freedom of movement suggests that this form of detention is a clear breach of international law through deprivation of liberty.

More on this: A way forward on refugees

Therefore, Australia has a clear obligation to protect its citizens abroad from detention and inhumane treatment. The best way to do this is to repatriate them so they can exercise their rights in their country of citizenship.

Furthermore, under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, children are considered vulnerable and require special protection. Countries that are signatory to this treaty, such as Australia, are obligated to treat children associated with extremist groups as victims, not perpetrators.

Children trapped in Syria are entitled to protection by their country of citizenship and cannot be punished, excluded or deemed unworthy of human rights protection due to the actions of their parents.

This shows that, under international law, the children currently trapped in Syria deserve adequate protection from the Australian Government.

With 22 countries, including the United States, having already repatriated their citizens, Australia simply has no excuse for not doing the same, regardless of security concerns. Australia has adequate counter-terrorism legislation to prosecute any adults they deem a security risk.

If Australia wishes to continue to promote itself as committed to the protection and promotion of human rights, it must protect the rights of all of its citizens. Failing these vulnerable people does a disservice to Australia’s role as a responsible international player and undermines the principle of Australian citizenship.

It is clear that the Australian Government has multiple legal obligations to protect the human rights of Australian women and children trapped in Syrian refugee camps. As such, these people must be repatriated in a timely fashion so they can exercise their rights to freedom and safety.

This piece is published as part of Policy Forum’s new feature section – In Focus: Australia’s policy future – which brings you policy analysis and ideas that go beyond the sound bites.

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