The federal government is moving forward on repatriating 19 Canadian women and children held in northeastern Syria.
Family members of 23 detained Canadians — six women, four men and 13 children — have asked a Federal Court to order the government to arrange for their return. They've argued that refusing to do so would violate their charter rights.
The Canadians are among many foreign nationals in Syrian detention camps for suspected ISIS members and their families. The camps are run by the Kurdish forces that reclaimed the war-torn region from the extremist group.
Lawrence Greenspon, the lawyer for the applicants, told CBC that an agreement has been reached to secure the release and return of the women and children. The case of the four men is still before the court, he said.
"It's clear that the Canadian government has the ability to bring our Canadians home, and where there is evidence to believe they've committed an offence, charge them and prosecute them," Greenspon told CBC's Canada Tonight host Dwight Drummond.
The government confirmed Friday morning that an agreement had been reached. A statement from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) said the government would evaluate the possibility of providing assistance to other detainees on a case-by-case basis.
"Amidst reports of deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions in the camps, we remain particularly concerned with the health and safety of Canadian women and children," the statement said.
Decision 'long past due,' expert says
A document filed in the court case in December said GAC already had begun looking into repatriating the 19 Canadians. The document stated that they had met the threshold under the government's January 2021 policy framework for providing extraordinary assistance.
The names of the women and children have not been disclosed.
Leah West, a national security expert and professor at Carleton University, said the decision is "long past due." She said Canada has been pressed by allies and international advocacy groups to repatriate Canadian women and children from Syria.
"I think [with] all that pressure mounting, we were going to see the women and children come home," West said.
A handful of women and children have returned to Canada from the region in recent years, including two women who were arrested upon their arrival — one on terrorism charges.
But for the most part, Canada has not followed the example of other countries — including France and Australia — that have successfully repatriated citizens.
WATCH | Go inside a Syrian detention camp:
Treat children 'as victims,' says human rights group
Farida Deif, director of Human Rights Watch in Canada, said Canada has been hesitant because it lacked "political will to repatriate anyone with suspected ISIS ties."
Deif said her organization estimates there are still dozens of Canadians in Syrian camps, most of them children.
"There needs to be steps taken to ensure that the children are treated first and foremost as victims," Deif said. "They've … suffered unimaginable harm already."
Both West and Deif said they would support the repatriation of the Canadian men held in the detention camps so they can face trial in Canada.
But former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski told CBC News Network that he doubts any of the adults returning would face justice for potential crimes they may have committed.
"The witnesses aren't here, the evidence isn't here," he told host Natasha Fatah. "As a Canadian citizen I'm outraged that people are going to get away with it."
Gurski said it would also put extra pressure on Canada's intelligence bodies to monitor the individuals that do return.