Two Canadian women and three teenage girls who were set to be repatriated by the federal government from a Syrian detention camp earlier this month have disappeared and their lawyer fears they’re being held in a Kurdish prison or worse.
One of their criminal defence lawyers, Zachary Al-Khatib, says no one has heard from the women for at least a week. He said Global Affairs told a family member they are “devastated” and the department is consumed with trying to find the missing Canadians.
“We are fearing the absolute worst,” Al-Khatib told CBC News in an interview. “I’m worried about whether or not they’re alive. We have no information whatsoever. We know women have been killed in these camps.”
Al-Khatib said relatives in Canada received a frantic text message earlier this month from a woman at al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria saying she saw the women being put into a military vehicle on April 2 and taken away to an interrogation site controlled by Kurdish authorities known as the “Red Prison.”
The Toronto Star was first to report on the developments on Monday.
The women were supposed to be among a group of 19 Canadian women and children the federal government promised to bring home to Canada, but only 14 were on the plane on April 6.
The two missing Canadian women are from the Edmonton area and are 41 and 33 years old, said Al-Khatib. One of the women has three teenage daughters with her, he said.
The government had struck a last-minute deal in December 2022 to repatriate 19 Canadian women and children, just a day before a Federal Court judge was going to render his decision on whether the government must bring back that group of Canadians who have been detained for years in Kurdish-run refugee camps in northeastern Syria.
A recent audio recording between the mother of one of the women — who lives in the Edmonton area— and a Global Affairs official, according to Al-Khatib, says allies warned Canada that sometimes citizens don’t show up for repatriations at the designated pick-up point.
The Canadian official was calling the woman to explain efforts are underway to try and locate her daughter.
During the roughly 16-minute recording CBC News listened to, the Global Affairs official is heard saying Canada’s repatriation efforts in the past have gone smoothly, but other countries warned that wasn’t always the case.
“We didn’t want to believe that happens, but this has happened to other countries and they tried to warn us,” the Global Affairs official said on the recording to the mother. “And when it did actually happen, we were kind of shocked by it.
“We didn’t think it was an actual possibility.”
Al-Khatib, meanwhile, said it’s “completely unacceptable and unbelievable” that the Canadian government isn’t able to access information from the Kurdish authorities about his clients’ whereabouts. The Canadian officials, he added, did not ensure the five women and girls safely made it to the pick-up point.
“They (the women) were extremely concerned about their personal safety,” said Al-Khatib. “Al-Hol is a very dangerous place. They communicated their concerns. They were worried they were going to be assaulted, they were worried their physical safety was in jeopardy if they went to tell the guards they needed to be transported.”
On the recording, the Canadian official tells the woman that the government is investigating why the woman’s daughter wasn’t repatriated as planned and is exhausting “every avenue” to try and find the missing women, including requesting information from Kurdish authorities, NGOs, and other allies who have representatives on the ground in northeastern Syria.
The detention camps and prisons are controlled by Kurdish authorities who took over the region once controlled by ISIS, militants fighting to establish an Islamist state. The camps are holding ISIS suspects and their family members, according to Human Rights Watch. The non-governmental organization describes the conditions for children as “life-threatening, deeply degrading, and in many cases inhuman.”
Al-Kahtib said the women in the camps were told in late March by the Canadian government they had to identify themselves to Kurdish authorities controlling the al-Hol camp and ask for transportation to another camp, called al-Roj, to be part of the 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 ensuring the women and teen’s safety during the repatriation effort.
“It’s baffling to me intelligence partners, other Western countries said ‘you need to be aware there’s a risk to the safety of these women,’ but the government didn’t communicate that to the women and ensure their safety.”
The Global Affairs official is heard saying on the recording saying Canadian officials told Kurdish authorities not to detain any Canadians it was repatriating.
Canadian representatives also made it known to Kurdish officials during the handover of the other women and children they wanted 19 brought home, not 14, and that what happened wasn’t right, the Global Affairs official told the mother on the recording.
“I really had hoped the women would be there,” the official is heard saying on the recording. “I’m very sorry it didn’t happen that way. But we are looking into it, we are investigating what happened – where are they.
“We have a million questions just like you have a million questions.”
Looking for ‘Red Prison’
The official added they were working to see if the RCMP on the ground in the region can locate the woman or find out any information about the ‘Red Prison’.
“We had never heard of it before,” the Global Affairs official said on the audio recording. “We’re kind of at a loss to what this prison is.”
The official is also heard saying on the recording they don’t want to speculate on what happened to the women or where they could be.
Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon represented the women in a federal court case where he argued it was against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for the government to let Canadians languish in Syrian detention camps. Kurdish authorities have been urging countries to repatriate their citizens.
Greenspon told CBC News Monday night he has been in contact with Global Affairs Canada, which told him it doesn’t know the women’s whereabouts.
“They do not know why they were not there and were unable to provide information as to where they are now,” Greenspon wrote in a message.
Al-Khatib said he doesn’t know why his clients were in Syria and said he hasn’t seen a “shred of evidence these two women travelled for the purposes of joining ISIS.”
He said the government warned the women before the repatriation efforts that they could be arrested upon arrival in Canada and it was possible they would face a terrorism peace bond, which would require them to live under certain conditions for up to a year.
He emailed the government 10 days ago warning he had heard the women were being housed in the ‘Red Prison’, and said he had not received a response.
CBC news has requested a comment from Global Affairs Canada.
The official on the audio recording is heard saying the government plans to try and repatriate the women, but said it’s expecting a delay and couldn’t promise a date.