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Opposition MPs urge federal government to bring home Canadians detained in Syria

NDP MP and foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson is seen during a news conference on April 26, 2022 in Ottawa. McPherson joined several human rights advocates at a news conference Thursday, calling on Ottawa to take responsibility for Canadian citizens languishing in squalid camps in northern Syria. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The NDP's foreign affairs critic acknowledges the challenges related to Canadians being held in northern Syria, but says the federal government must step in to bring its citizens home.

New Democrat MP Heather McPherson says the arbitrarily detained Canadians, including many young children, are barely surviving in deplorable conditions, with no end in sight. 

McPherson joined several human rights advocates at a news conference calling on Ottawa to take responsibility for citizens languishing in squalid camps.

More than three dozen Canadians are among the estimated thousands of foreign nationals held in Syrian camps by Kurdish forces that reclaimed the strife-torn region from the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The federal government has said Canada's ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited given the security situation on the ground. 

Several families have turned to the Federal Court, saying the government's refusal to step in breaches the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Citizenship Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

McPherson said Canadians should not have to go to court to get the consular services they deserve.

"This problem is a challenging one, yes, but it is not one where the government can look away. A government cannot evade its responsibilities towards its citizens, and it must not make decisions based on fear," she said.

"All Canadians in northeast Syria need to be repatriated, reintegrated and resettled in Canada. And anyone who may have committed crimes should be prosecuted here under our judicial system. Other countries have done this, but Canada has not yet shown the political will."

Green MP Elizabeth May said she could not understand why Canada is not urgently repatriating all of its citizens, calling the federal excuses paper thin. "How can we turn our backs on these Canadians?"

Monia Mazigh drew a parallel between the fate of the detainees and her husband Maher Arar, who was detained in Syria two decades ago.

"They were never charged with any crimes, their Canadian families want them home, but the Canadian government is stopping them," she said Thursday.

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained in New York in September 2002 and soon after deported by U.S. authorities — winding up in a grave-like cell in Damascus. 

Under torture, the Ottawa telecommunications engineer gave false confessions to Syrian military intelligence officers about supposed collaboration with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. 

A federal inquiry concluded that faulty information the RCMP passed to the United States very likely led to Arar's yearlong ordeal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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