Eight orphans of Australian Islamic State fighters have been spirited out of a camp in Syria, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Monday, June 24, in an apparent U-turn.
The children and grandchildren of two notorious foreign fighters are now in the care of Australian officials, he said in a statement.
The children are believed to be aged between two and 17 and were living in a camp in northern Syria, making consular access all but impossible.
Morrison previously indicated his government would only help citizens if they approached an embassy or consulate but appeared to have had a change of heart.
“The fact that parents put their children into harm’s way by taking them into a war zone was a despicable act,” Morrison said in a statement.
“However, children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.”
The group includes three surviving children and two grandchildren of Sydney-born Khaled Sharrouf — who came to prominence after posting a photo of one of his sons holding the head of a Syrian soldier.
There are also three children of Yasin Rizvic who travelled from Australia to Syria with his wife.
Both Islamic State fighters are presumed dead.
Morrison did not name the children or elaborate on how they were removed, but confirmed they were “repatriated from the conflict zone into the care of Australian government officials.”
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the children had been moved to a country neighboring Syria.
Their case had gained widespread attention after the grandmother of the Sharrouf children – 17-year-old heavily pregnant Zaynab, her younger sister Hoda, their eight-year-old brother Hamzeh, and Zaynab’s two young children Ayesha, three, and Fatima, two – had pleaded with Canberra to bring them home.
Grandmother Karen Nettleton even traveled to the camp earlier this year to meet them but was rebuffed by authorities, and Morrison said he did not want to put Australian lives at risk.
The Sharrouf children were taken from Syria by an aid agency working with the Australian government, ABC News reported.
The prime minister on Monday repeated his concerns, adding that “repatriating these children was not a decision the Australian government made lightly.”
“Australia’s national security and the safety of our people and personnel have always been our most important considerations in this matter,” he said.
The fate of foreign fighters and their families has become a significant problem for governments as the conflict against ISIS draws to a close.
Also on Monday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that the estimated 55,000 ISIS fighters and their families still detained in Iraq and Syria should be put on trial or freed.
“Foreign family members should be repatriated,” Bachelet told the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, stressing that countries under no circumstances should render people, and especially children, stateless.
Several European countries, including Belgium, France and the Netherlands, have repatriated children from Syria in recent months.
Earlier in June, the United States repatriated two children and six women from detention in Syria.
Al-Hol camp in northeast Syria is home to nearly 74,000 people, among them wives and children of suspected ISIS fighters. According to the United Nations, about 15% of the people living in the camp are not from Iraq or Syria.
Conditions in Al-Hol are dire, and over 200 children under the age of five are known to have died in the camp.
With reporting from AFP