TORONTO — Families of Canadians detained in Syria over links to ISIS have filed a case in federal court against the Canadian government over perceived inaction on getting them home.
The proceeding was filed on Monday in Ottawa on behalf of 11 families – referred to as “Bring Our Loved Ones Home,” or BOLOH, to protect their identities. The case outlines their beliefs the government has neglected to uphold parts of the Federal Court Act, the Citizenship Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, in relation to repatriating their family members.
The application lists 14 children, eight women and four men who are being held in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj prison camps and the Hasakah, Qamishli and Derik prisons in regions across north-eastern Syria.
The application says the conditions in the camps are “horrific,” citing “a lack of clean water, malnutrition, non-existent hygiene measures, an acute shortage of medical care and facilities, violence and abuse,” and that the detainees have not been charged with offences nor given trial dates.
“The Canadian government has the ability to bring the unlawful detention to the end and secure the release of the detained Canadians,” the case says.
In an email to CTVNews.ca, Global Affairs Canada said the government is “aware of Canadians citizens being detained in Northeastern Syria and is particularly concerned with cases of Canadian children in the region.”
“The safety and security of Canadians always remain the utmost priority for the government of Canada while meeting necessary legal obligations. Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited,” the statement says, adding that Canadian consular officials are actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities.
Canada has been under scrutiny from groups like Human Rights Watch HRW and the United Nations for not expending more effort to repatriate their citizens detained in Syria, as other countries like France and Germany have effectively brought back detainees, especially children, to their respective countries.
The statement concluded that due to the Privacy Act, and the fact that the case is before the courts, Global Affairs could not comment further and no more information could be disclosed.
The detainees in the application are not named, but at least one is former British Columbia resident Kimberly Polman, who married an ISIS fighter after travelling to Daesh-occupied territory in 2015.
Polman is allegedly on a hunger strike protesting lack of medical care in the camps, according to HRW.
In a letter dated Sept. 20 and allegedly sent from Polman to her family in Canada, which was shared with Human Rights Watch and obtained by CTVNews.ca, Polman says her body is on the brink of shutting down completely.
“I stopped eating almost a week ago. My body just can’t take this anymore…this place guarantees you lost your sanity, your dignity, your humanity one way or another…It’s exhausting trying to protect myself all day, all night. I can’t do it anymore,” the letter states.
Polman’s sister – who asked not to be identified for safety reasons – told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview Wednesday that the family was “blindsided” when she left in 2015 and have been desperate to get her home ever since she was detained in the Al-Roj camp.
“I’m five years older, so she will always be my little sister…today is her 49th birthday,” she said, adding that she stays in contact with Polman in the camp through text messages and voice notes.
Polman’s sister said she was “taken by surprise” when she found out her sister had started a hunger strike, but that she believes she “is at her wits’ end.”
“She was hoping she could go home, she was given reason to believe that that might be the case from someone high up in the camp, especially because of the snap election,” Polman’s sister said. “She’s really devastated [that she can’t come home], she’s been sick for a while, she has broken teeth, she has kidney infections…she’s distraught and says she doesn’t want to live anymore….it’s the last thing she has control over.”
Polman’s sister said the Canadian government has “never once checked in” with her family, despite her frequently offering information about her sister and what life is like in the camps.
“It’s a joke,” she said. “At one point I talked to someone very high up in Global Affairs…and he said ‘just do nothing,’ that’s exactly what he said, direct quote…I was outraged.”
When asked about the public sentiment some Canadians have towards ISIS-linked detainees who left of their own accord to join the terrorist organization, Polman’s sister said she wishes people would try to understand some of the extenuating circumstances, saying that her sister was “brainwashed” by ISIS.
“I am all for justice, and the choice she made has consequences beyond anything that she could have ever imagined,” she said. “But we don’t have our Canadian citizenship on merit…even the most hardened criminals and murderers are granted the rights of a Canadian citizen….they are still human beings, they are still Canadians.”
Farida Deif, Canada Director at Human Rights Watch, who provided CTVNews.ca with photographs of the original letter allegedly sent by Polman to her family as well as a typed transcription, said in a statement emailed to CTVNews.ca that the Canadian government has left the detainees in Syria to “languish indefinitely.”
“For over two years, dozens of Canadian ISIS suspects and their family members have been unlawfully detained in locked desert camps and prisons in northeast Syria. Most are young children who never chose to live under ISIS,” Deif’s statement reads. “It’s deeply troubling that these detainees and their families in Canada would have to resort to taking their government to court to end this paralysis…Prime Minister Trudeau has the power to bring these Canadians home. He just needs to find the moral courage to do so.”
“I hate ISIS and everything that did, they stole my sister,” Polman’s sister said. “But I believe that everybody can be redeemed if you give them a chance, and that they should face justice when they get back…but that doesn’t mean that they should be left to die out there.”