Canadians fear missing alive in Syria detention center but in distress, lawyer says

Two Canadian women and three teenage girls who were feared missing in north-east Syria after failing to show up for a scheduled repatriation flight to Canada have now been in touch with a family member, but concerns remain for their well-being and Questions about her whereabouts go further to her lawyer.

One of her defense attorneys, Zachary Al-Khatib, told CBC News Tuesday that one of the missing women was able to make a quick call to a relative Tuesday morning and express that they were in distress.

Al-Khatib says he still fears the women and teenagers are at risk.

“I am very concerned for their safety and well-being,” Al-Khatib said on Tuesday. “They are in distress and want to be brought back to Canada.”

Global Affairs Canada has not yet confirmed if it has located the group of women and teenagers who have been missing for more than a week.

Al-Khatib said earlier Monday that relatives in Canada received a frantic text message earlier this month from a woman from al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, saying she had seen the women on April 2 in a military vehicle and taken to an area controlled by Kurdish authorities known as the “Red Prison” for interrogation.

The Toronto Star was the first to report on the developments on Monday.

Some of the repatriated families were held at al-Hol and then transferred up to al-Roj for repatriation. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The women were supposed to be among a group of 19 Canadian women and children the federal government had promised to bring home to Canada, but as of April 6 only 14 were on the plane.

The two missing Canadian women are from the Edmonton area and are 41 and 33 years old, Al-Khatib said. One of the women has three teenage daughters with her, he said.

The government had reached a last-minute agreement to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children in December 2022, just a day before a federal court judge was due to make his decision on whether the government must bring back this group of Canadians for which it is imprisoning spent years in Kurdish-run refugee camps in north-eastern Syria.

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An April 11 audio recording between the mother of one of the women — who lives in the Edmonton area — and a Global Affairs official, Al-Khatib says, says allies have warned Canada that citizens sometimes don’t show up for repatriation at the designated pickup point.

The Canadian official called the woman to explain that efforts are being made to locate her daughter.

During the roughly 16-minute recording heard by CBC News, the Global Affairs official can be heard saying that Canada’s repatriation efforts have historically gone smoothly, but other countries have warned that this has not always been the case.

“We didn’t want to believe this was happening, but this has happened to other countries and they tried to warn us,” the global affairs official said on the admission to the mother a week ago. “And when it actually happened, we were kind of shocked.

“We didn’t think it was an actual possibility.”

Al-Khatib, meanwhile, said it was “completely unacceptable and unbelievable” that the Canadian government had no access to information from the Kurdish authorities on the whereabouts of its clients. Canadian officials, he added, failed to ensure the five women and girls got safely to the pick-up point.

“They (the women) were extremely concerned for their personal safety,” Al-Khatib said. “Al-Hol is a very dangerous place. You have expressed your concern. They were worried they would be attacked, they feared their physical safety would be jeopardized if they told the guards they needed transport.”

On the recording, the Canadian official tells the woman that the government is investigating why the woman’s daughter was not repatriated as planned and is “using all avenues” to try to find the missing women, including requesting information from Kurdish authorities, NGOs and other allies who have representatives on the ground in northeastern Syria.

“Life-threatening” conditions

The detention camps and prisons are controlled by Kurdish authorities who have taken over the region once controlled by ISIS, militants fighting to establish an Islamist state. According to Human Rights Watch, the camps are holding ISIS suspects and their family members. The non-governmental organization describes the conditions for children as “life-threatening, deeply degrading and in many cases inhumane”.

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Al-Kahtib said the women in the camps were ordered by the Canadian government in late March to present themselves to the Kurdish authorities controlling al-Hol camp and ask to be transported to another camp called al-Roj , to become part of the camp repatriation effort.

But al-Khatib found out they weren’t on the plane on April 6, and it’s been “radio silence since.”

The lawyer said the government should have done a better job to ensure the safety of the women and teenagers during repatriation efforts.

“It’s baffling to me as an intelligence partner that other Western countries have said, ‘You must be aware that there is a risk to the safety of these women,’ but the government has not communicated this to the women and has failed to ensure their safety.”

Global Affairs officials can be heard saying on the recording that Canadian officials have told Kurdish authorities not to detain Canadians they are repatriating.

Canadian officials also told Kurdish officials at the handover of the other women and children they wanted that 19 were taken home, not 14, and that what happened was not right, the Global Affairs official said mother on the recording.

The al-Hol camp is home to around 60,000 refugees. Human Rights Watch describes the conditions faced by children as “life-threatening, deeply degrading, and in many cases inhumane.” (AP)

“I was really hoping the women would be there,” the official is heard saying on the recording. “I’m very sorry it didn’t happen like that. But we’re investigating, we’re investigating what happened – where are they.

“We have a million questions, just like you have a million questions.”

Searching for the “Red Prison”

The official added that they are working to determine if the RCMP on the ground in the area can locate the woman or find out information about the “Red Prison.”

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“We had never heard of this before,” the Global Affairs official said on the audio recording. “We’re kind of at a loss as to what this prison is.”

The officers can also be heard saying on the recording that they don’t want to speculate about what happened to the women or where they might be.

Ottawa attorney Lawrence Greenspon represented the women in a federal court case in which he argued that the government’s letting Canadians languish in Syrian detention camps violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Kurdish authorities have urged countries to repatriate their citizens.

CLOCK | Canada wants to repatriate Canadians to Syrian camps: Canadian women, children leave ISIS camps in Syria, says lawyerThe lawyer for several Canadian women and their children who have been held for a long time in a Syrian camp for suspected ISIS members and their families told CBC News that an agreement has been reached to bring them home, and some may already be on their way.

Greenspon told CBC News Monday night he had been in contact with Global Affairs Canada, who told him they didn’t know the whereabouts of the women.

“They don’t know why they weren’t there and couldn’t provide any information as to where they are now,” Greenspon wrote in a statement.

Al-Khatib said he didn’t know why his clients were in Syria and said he hadn’t seen any evidence “that these two women traveled to join ISIS.”

He said the government had warned the women ahead of repatriation efforts that they could be detained upon arrival in Canada and could face a terrorist peace deal that would require them to serve up to a year under certain conditions to live.

10 days ago he emailed the government warning he had heard the women were being held in the “Red Prison” and said he had received no response.

CBC News has requested comment from Global Affairs Canada.

The official on the audio recording says the government plans to repatriate the women, but said they expected a delay and could not promise a date.