Families of Canadians trapped in Syria turn to Federal Court to force government help

OTTAWA — The families of Canadians trapped in northern Syria are asking the Federal Court to force Ottawa to help them.

The 11 families say in a court filing that the government's refusal to step in amounts to breaches of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Citizenship Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, among other statutes.

The application was submitted on behalf of several Canadians with relatives, including more than a dozen children, trapped in Syria, and calls on the court to order the government to take "all reasonable steps" to repatriate them.

The trapped Canadians are among the estimated thousands of foreign nationals held in camps in northern Syria by Kurdish forces that won back the war-torn region from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The Kurds suspected many of them of being ISIL sympathizers, but the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the organization Human Rights Watch say they are innocent victims caught up in Syria's civil war and have denounced the Canadian government for not repatriating them, as some European countries have done with their citizens.

"Despite their repeated pleas for help, the Canadian government has left them to languish indefinitely in degrading and inhumane conditions. It's deeply troubling that these detainees and their families in Canada would have to resort to taking their government to court to end this paralysis," said Farida Deif, head of the Canadian branch of Human Rights Watch.

The applicants in the court filing are not named to protect their security, but one relative is speaking out about her sister, who is on a life-threatening hunger strike and desperately needs medical attention.

The Canadian branch of Human Rights Watch is also drawing attention to the plight of the woman, identified as Kimberly Polman, being held in one of the squalid camps rife with COVID-19 and unsanitary conditions.

"Her life and the lives of more than 40 other Canadians are on the line," said Deif. "Prime Minister Trudeau has the power to bring these Canadians home. He just needs to find the moral courage to do so."

Polman's sister, who spoke to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity because she fears reprisals against her family, said she wrote to Global Affairs Canada last week to say her sister is suffering from hepatitis and failing kidneys and won't live much longer if she does not receive help.

The woman described her sister as a troubled woman who was suffering from post-traumatic stress and facing other challenges about six years ago, and who surprised her family by turning up in Syria.

According to her sister, Polman apparently met a man online who was an ISIL fighter and married him, though they soon separated. She was later thrown in prison.

"All of this was a shock to our family. I had no idea that she would ever entertain this," Polman's sister said in an interview Thursday. "She was going through a really hard time ... but I had no idea."

John Babcock, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said the government is talking with Syrian and Kurdish authorities for information on the Canadians in the region. The government is "particularly concerned with cases of Canadian children in the region," he added.  

"Given the security situation on the ground, the government of Canada's ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited." 

The government cannot comment on specific cases because of privacy concerns, said Babcock.

Last year, the Canadian government repatriated a five-year-old orphaned girl, but Ottawa has not committed to helping more of the trapped Canadians return.

Polman's sister said her sibling has denounced ISIL publicly, which has made her life much more perilous within the camp. She said her sister was brainwashed by ISIL, which she described as a cult. She suggested her sister's plight should serve as a cautionary tale for helping people who suffer mental illness.

"We need to pay better attention to people who are struggling ... so that they get the help they need."

Nothing her sister has done should deprive her of the right to receive help from her government in her time of need, the woman said.

"None of us have citizenship by merit. All of us have citizenship because we were born into it or we were given it," she said.

"And so, on the basis of her being a Canadian citizen, and a human being, she deserves to be to be granted all the rights and privileges of being a sensitive human being in our world, just like anyone else."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press