An Australian radicalisation expert working with the families of women with links to ISIS says there are two, possibly three more women with dual Australian/New Zealand citizenship trying to return home from Syria.
New Zealand citizen Suhayra Aden and her two young children are in a deportation centre in Turkey awaiting a decision on their fate. She acquired dual nationality after moving to Australia from New Zealand when she was six. She travelled to Syria in 2014 to join Islamic State, leading to Australia stripping her of citizenship.
Dr Clarke Jones is a criminologist and researcher at the Australian National University, focussing on violent extremism, terrorism, radicalisation, and community-led interventions.
He is working with the families of Australian and New Zealand women with ISIS links, and has been involved in developing a framework to help reintegrate such returnees.
Jones tells Kathryn Ryan that there are 67 Australian women and children with links to Isis in Syria right now and roughly 43 of them are 14 years old or under.
“There’s some very young children, 34 are six years and under and at least 20 or so are toddlers.”
At least two to three of the women with children in Syria have dual New Zealand and Australian citizenship. Jones says it’s quite possible those women and children have already had their Australian citizenship revoked.
Most of these women and children have been moved from the Al-Hol camp to the Al-Roj camp which Jones says is close to the Turkish border with Syria.
“The conditions are not as bad as Al-Hol but I’m really making it sound light by saying that; its conditions are still disastrous. It’s very dangerous for all concerned.”
Jones says it’s a stricter camp that Al-Hol and all detainees have had their mobile phones and communication devices stripped from them.
“The tents they live in, they’re either freezing in winter or boiling hot in summer. There’s not enough toilet space. There have been horrendous incidents that have happened which the women and children have witnessed, and the list goes on. It’s extremely dire circumstances, particularly for the toddlers.”
He says there is a framework to bringing home the women and children in camps but there has been no risk assessment done on them.
“The United Nations has said that while there’s always a risk in bringing them home in from those sorts of conditions and having been associated with the Islamic State, they did a review of the risk and found that a lot of the commentary around the high risk has been unfounded.”
Mental health issues in children are one of the likely outcomes of families returning to Australia and New Zealand after the trauma of what they’ve been through and witnessed.
“This is the thing we really need to work on, getting them back here into a situation of normalcy and back into some sort of school and education, but certainly back into family life. We need to get them away from that environment where, every day, the situation is getting worse.”
There is precedence for reintegrating children into Australia after the five children of Khaled Sharrouf, who died in Syria, were returned to the country. Jones says their reintegration has had its ups and downs but has been, overall, very successful.
He says the faith communities have had a mixed response to assisting in reintegration, with some being extremely supportive, but others wary of being associated with the Isis label.
“There has been so much media focus and government focus on Muslim communities and that, in itself, has created the othering or ‘suspect communities’ where somehow the whole Muslim community is somehow complicit in terrorism, so you can understand why some community members are reluctant and try to stay well away from that to avoid the labelling.”
Jones says it would be a sign of good faith if the Australian government repatriated the women and children citizens who are stuck in these camps, and the US government has even offered to assist in making it a safe journey.
“There’s many hands in the pump, but the Australian government is resisting and we’re just not sure why… the Australian government has a responsibility here and it’s a shame that they’re shirking the responsibility on this matter.
“That said, there are some discussions going on behind the scenes and I’m sure the government does have a moral compass here and let’s hope that it does do the right thing in the near future.”