United Nations experts have accused Australia of failing to prevent the “sheer obliteration of the rights” of its own citizens including children who are held in “sordid” conditions in camps in north-eastern Syria.
In a move that humanitarian groups hope will intensify pressure on Australia to act, 12 UN special rapporteurs have written jointly to the government to raise concerns about 46 Australian citizens, including 30 children, held in the camps.
The letter raises deep concerns about conditions in al-Hawl and Roj camps, “where most of these individuals are held and are deprived of their liberty without any judicial process”.
It warns that children have been suffering from “malnourishment” and “dire housing and sanitary conditions” and are showing signs of trauma.
The UN special rapporteurs say they believe the conditions “constitute a violation of a number of human rights, and meet the standard of torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
The letter renews calls for the Australian government to repatriate its citizens, saying this is “the only legal and humane response to the complex and precarious human rights, humanitarian and security situation”.
The camps are managed by Kurdish authorities. Those detained are believed to include family members of men who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State. Supporters of the women and children say their individual stories vary but many were tricked into going there or were trafficking victims.
The Australian government has repeatedly raised concerns about the conditions in the camps, but has maintained it will only consider repatriations on a case-by-case basis and is focused on protecting “the Australian community”.
The UN letter to the Australian government, written in February but only released on Sunday, acknowledges the difficult circumstances surrounding the detentions, but adds that this cannot be a justification for inaction.
“It is our considered view that any argument based on the extreme nature of the situation cannot be used to justify such already lengthy detentions and the complete lack of steps taken by your Excellency’s government to remedy the sheer obliteration of the rights of Australian citizens resulting from their arbitrary deprivation of liberty,” the letter says.
“The absolute prohibition of arbitrary detention in international law is considered so fundamental that it remains applicable even in the most exceptional situations.”
The letter also says that under international law, children are considered vulnerable and in need of special protection. No child can be “deemed unworthy of human rights protection by virtue of the status or acts of his parents”.
The UN experts said some of the women may have been coerced or trafficked into Syria, and any responses by governments must not “perpetuate or contribute further harm to those who have already experienced profound violence and trauma”.
“Australia must be mindful of the potential for coercion, co-option, trafficking, enslavement, sexual exploitation, and harm upon joining or being associated with a non-state armed group, not to mention on-line grooming and recruitment for marriage, sexual or household services or labour for the organization,” the letter said.
The letter also raised concern about Australia’s use of citizenship-stripping powers to address the threat of terrorism. It said individuals detained in north-east Syria did not have meaningful access to lawyers and may be subjected to “arbitrary deprivation of citizenship”.
Save the Children Australia said the UN letter underlined that the children were victims of Isis and should be cared by Australia as such.
“The UN has called out Australia for failing to meet its obligations to children,” the acting chief executive of Save the Children Australia, Mat Tinkler, said.
“If this admonishment won’t prompt the repatriation of innocent, vulnerable children, exactly what will it take?”
Australia’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Amanda Gorely, wrote in response to the UN letter that Australia “remains concerned about the situation in North-East Syria” and described it as a “challenging environment”.
“Australia considers all circumstances when approaching the question of repatriations from Syria and responds on a case-by-case basis,” Gorely wrote in a letter also released on Sunday.
“In June 2019, the Australian government facilitated the return of all unaccompanied Australian minors known to us at that time.”
Gorely said Australia “does not accept that it exercises jurisdiction over detention facilities in North-East Syria such as to engage the extraterritorial application of Australia’s international human rights obligations”.
The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said on Sunday the government “did everything we could to dissuade and prevent Australians from travelling to that zone in the first place”.
“And unfortunately a number still chose to do that, both women and men, and there are of course … a number of children who are with largely their mothers at this stage, still in that zone,” she told the ABC’s Insiders program.
“What we have to take into account is the safety of all Australians, including here domestically, and these are matters that we continue to discuss within the government.”
Payne said she would “not go into the specifics of any intelligence of course, but ultimately, they are Australians who have found themselves in this position because their parents took themselves to those war zones”.
Fabrizio Carboni, a regional director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has previously described the situation in the camps as “one of the most complex child protection crises today” and said children “must be treated first and foremost as victims”.
Guardian Australia reported last year an 11-year-old Australian girl had collapsed due to suspected malnutrition in al-Roj camp and had required help from ambulance medics.
Last week British MPs and a human rights group called on the UK government to repatriate a young British boy and his gravely ill mother from a detention camp in Syria, after doctors said she was at risk of dying and leaving the child orphaned.