Canadian orphan in Syrian brought out, but Trudeau says no plan to free others

OTTAWA — A five-year-old Canadian girl stuck inside Syria after her family was killed in an airstrike is on her way to Canada. 

Her family in Toronto says they were told Sunday that the child, known as Amira, was now in the care of a Canadian consular official.

Amira was found on the side of a road last year and was taken to a refugee camp in a region of Syria controlled by Kurdish-led forces. Led by the girl's uncle, the family has been trying to get her to Canada since. 

"We are delighted by this news and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has made this possible," they said in a statement Monday.

"We would kindly request privacy as my niece transitions into her new life in Canada.”

Her family's lawyer hailed her imminent arrival as giving hope to dozens of Canadians who remain trapped in Syria.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Monday that Amira's case was an exception, not precedent. 

She was an orphan who lost her parents and had family in Canada, Trudeau said. It took months of planning and co-ordination to get her out, he said. 

"We don't have a plan to do that for others," he said in French at an unrelated news conference Monday, declining to explain why. 

Countries around the world have long struggled with what do with their citizens suspected — as Amira's parents were — of being aligned with Islamic State militants.

The debate has been polarizing, with opponents of repatriation arguing that bringing them home effectively amounts to bringing back terrorists who are a threat to national security. 

Human rights groups, on the other hand, have argued the security and health risks posed in the camps — including the potential that children will be radicalized there — is the greater threat, and countries could prosecute alleged terrorists using domestic laws. 

As many as 10,000 foreign nationals are believed to be held in camps in Syria, including Al-Hawl where Amira was taken. 

Over the weekend, the Syrian Democratic Council, which overseas the region, said it would soon free all Syrian nationals from the camps and no longer assume responsibility for the foreigners who remain. 

The council said it should haven't to pay to feed or house them, or be concerned about the safety risks they face. 

Farid Deif, Canada director for Human Rights Watch, said Monday that raises concerns about the fate of 46 other Canadians, including 25 children, who remain in the camp. 

"If Canadians and other foreigners are abandoned in Syria, they may experience even greater hardship and uncertainty," Deif said in an email. 

"Anyone who poses a security threat could also escape and regroup." 

The Kurdish-led government has repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their nationals or provide the regime with funds to investigate and prosecute suspects locally.

Many countries have responded by bringing their citizens home, either using a case-by-case approach to prioritize children or those who need medical care, or directly working with Syrian forces to bring home known fighters to face prosecution. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Phillipe Champagne said the Canadian government will inquire about the well-being of Canadians "from time to time," but otherwise there's been no change to the overarching government approach to the issue.

"Our first and foremost concern is to ensure the safety and security of Canadians here at home," he said.  

NDP public safety critic Jack Harris said Canada must respect its obligations to its citizens abroad. 

"If there are those who can be prosecuted, they should be but they are entitled to be treated fairly," he said.

"You can't just assume they've gone to fight as a terrorist and they are going to come back to do the same thing."

Amira's family had filed a lawsuit against the government in July, saying it was violating her rights by refusing to issue her travel documents and engage with authorities to bring her back.

The Liberal government had said that a lack of Canadian consular services in Syria, as well as the security situation, made helping her very difficult. 

Champagne would not divulge details of how, precisely, Amira got out of the region but did thank the Canadian military for its work. He would not say what role they played, nor would a spokesman for the Forces.

Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon, who represented Amira's family, said it is clear the barriers the government had previously thrown up could be overcome. 

He said the families of others in Syria will be asking tough questions of the government, and if necessary may return to the Canadian justice system to press the issue.

"They are saying, 'You got Amira out, clearly you were able to do that in a secure fashion,'" he said. 

"'So why not my son or why not my daughter?'"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2020.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press