17 Australian women, children return from Syrian camp

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Four women and their 13 children who were held in a Syrian camp since the Islamic State group fell in 2019 have become only the second group of Australians to be repatriated from the war-torn country, Australia’s government said Saturday, as political opponents warned the families pose a domestic security risk.

In confirming the latest group’s arrival in Sydney, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said the newcomers could face “law enforcement action” if a counterterrorism investigation team of police and security officers finds evidence of any offense.

The mothers, who were partners of Islamic State supporters, could face ongoing controls including ankle monitors and curfews or could be charged with entering the former Islamic State stronghold of al-Raqqa in Syria.

“Informed by national security advice, the government has carefully considered the range of security, community and welfare factors in making the decision to repatriate," O’Neil said in a statement.

Australian officials had assessed the group as the most vulnerable among 60 Australian women and children held in the al-Roj camp in northeast Syria.

Eight offspring of two slain Australian Islamic State fighters are the only other group to have been repatriated by Australia from the Syrian camps. The fighters’ children and grandchildren were returned by the previous Australian government in 2019.

Opposition home affairs spokesperson Karen Andrews called on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to explain what steps had been taken to ensure the wider Australian community would be safe from the potentially radicalized arrivals.

“It is inexcusable the actions that have been taken by the Albanese government in putting Australian lives at risk to extract women and children from the camps in Syria — the risk that is now in our Australian communities here,” Andrews said.

Albanese said he would follow all security advice on what risk the women and children posed, but did not divulge what the advice was.

“Our first and only priority is to keep Australians safe,” Albanese said.

Sydney resident Kamalle Dabboussy, who had lobbied the government for years to return his daughter Mariam with her three children, said their reunion in a Sydney hotel room had been emotional.

“It’s been an overwhelming day, a joyous day,” Dabboussy told reporters.

“There were hugs and tears. It was a very emotional moment,” he added.

Dabboussy said what happened next to the mothers and children was up to authorities, who are currently interviewing the women.

The United States, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada have already repatriated citizens from Syrian camps.