Four women and 13 children were repatriated to Australia on Saturday, having languished for years in squalid Syrian detention camps after the downfall of the Islamic State.
It was the first in a series of planned missions to bring back about 20 Australian women and 40 children — the wives, sons and daughters of vanquished IS fighters — from the notorious Al-Hol and Roj camps.
Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter was among the group, said some of the children would need medical treatment.
“Everyone is in a great space but there are some health conditions,” he told reporters.
“A couple of the children have some serious health issues that we want to get checked out as soon as possible.”
Dabboussy said his daughter Mariam, 31, had been “coerced” into travelling to Syria by her now-dead husband, and posed no threat to Australia.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said the government weighed a “range of security, community and welfare factors” before approving the repatriations.
“The decision to repatriate these women and their children was informed by individual assessments following detailed work by national security agencies,” she said in a statement after the 17 landed in Sydney.
The repatriations are a politically contentious issue in a country long known for its hardline approach to immigration.
Australia’s conservative opposition party has repeatedly cited national security concerns when arguing against the repatriations.
O’Neil said the women could be prosecuted in Australia if counter-terror officers found they were involved in illegal activities while in Syria.
Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said it was a “long overdue step”.
“For years, the Australian government has abandoned its nationals to horrific conditions in locked camps in northeast Syria,” McNeill said.
“Australia can play a leadership role on counterterrorism through these orderly repatriations of its nationals, most of them children who never chose to live under ISIS.”
The Australian women and children have lived in the Al-Hol and Roj detention camps in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria since the 2019 collapse of the IS “caliphate.”