The Canadian government says it provided consular services to a four-year-old girl recently freed from an Islamic State detention camp in northeastern Syria, but did not organize her exit from the camp.
"This story was one where the family themselves took the initiative to bring the daughter to Canada. The mother remains in Syria. She's now with, I believe, an aunt or a relative," said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a press conference today.
"The federal government facilitated the travel documents but this was something that was done by the family involved."
Peter Galbraith, the former U.S. diplomat who helped organize the young girl's release, told CBC News she made it out of the camp and into Iraq on Friday. He confirmed the girl is now in Canada.
WATCH | 4-year-old girl freed from Syrian detention camp:
He said the children in the camps are "completely innocent" and that governments should do more to bring them home.
"What one has to understand is that these are not refugee camps. These are prisons where these women are, and you would not allow a child to go to prison with its mother in Canada or the U.S.," Galbraith said.
"So why should this be the case in northeast Syria, especially when the prison conditions are so much worse than what you would find in North America?"
Global Affairs Canada said it then provided consular assistance to facilitate the child's travel from Iraq to Canada.
"We are aware that a Canadian child exited northeastern Syria into Iraq. In the interest of the well-being of the child and the privacy of the family, we will not be providing further details on this case," said department spokesperson Patricia Skinner.
Human rights advocates call for repatriation
The Canadian government has been under pressure from human rights advocates to repatriate and provide adequate consular assistance to dozens of citizens currently detained in northeast Syria — along with their children, in some cases — because of alleged ties to ISIS.
A 2020 report from the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accused the government of flouting its international human rights obligations and urged Ottawa to bring all of its detained citizens home from camps and prisons controlled by Kurdish forces to rehabilitate them and prosecute anyone accused of a crime.
The Human Rights Watch report estimates that there are more than 40 Canadian citizens currently detained in northeast Syria because of alleged ties to the Islamic State, and that more than 20 of them are children — many under the age of six.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the dangers of the region make repatriation difficult, but the government is willing to offer supports when it can.
"The situation in Syria unfortunately is also a fairly complex and often dangerous one and so the repatriation of any individual from that environment has been challenging," he said during a press conference Monday.
"There are a number of individuals who are in Syria who are not in circumstances where repatriation can be facilitated. So I'm not going to comment further on those individuals but we know that there are some cases where very young children, four and five years old, may be in a situation at risk.
"Where it can be safely accomplished, we have been supportive of efforts to ensure that those children can be returned to safety and that has taken place in a number of cases."
Last fall a five-year-old Canadian girl known as Amira was freed from a Syrian camp after her family was killed in an airstrike. She was sent to live with her uncle in Toronto.
At the time, Trudeau suggested Amira's case was an exception, not a precedent.
Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, visited the camp where the recently released girl was staying. West said children in the camp have nothing to play with other than water bottles and shoes.
"My first reaction was, of course, I'm very glad to see a child come out of those conditions without her mother and the only family she's ever known is terrible. But that's the first thing and I'm glad for that," she said.
"My second reaction is one of great disappointment that Canadians have to look outside the Canadian government for assistance to have Canadian loved ones, Canadian children, repatriated."
West said the government owes it to Kurds to repatriate Canadians accused of helping ISIS.
"We have an obligation as partners against ISIS to our partners in the region, the Syrian Kurds, to take Canadians off their hands. The Kurds were the victims of ISIS, losing 10,000 people in securing the world against ISIS," she said.
"And now we've left Canadians in their care asking them, with very little resources and very dire situations, to ensure safe keeping of our Canadians rather than taking our Canadians home and prosecuting them and holding them accountable."
Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef, who escaped the Taliban and came to Canada as a refugee in the 1990s, said she hopes the four-year-old is supported as she begins her new life in Canada.
"As you can appreciate, I came here with my mom and with my sister and I hope that this little girl has the support she needs to heal," she said, while making an unrelated announcement with Blair.
"I trust the work that our front line organizations are doing particularly to help survivors like this little one get back on their feet."