A civil society delegation that returned from northeastern Syria earlier this week says the federal government needs to immediately start providing full consular support to all Canadian citizens detained in the area.
The four-person delegation spent five days in the region and met with Canadian men, women and children who are being held in detention camps and prisons for suspected ISIS members and their families.
The federal government has said in the past that its ability to extend consular assistance to the detained Canadians is “extremely limited” due to security concerns.
But former Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve, who took part in the delegation, said the delegates’ visit to Syria proved it’s possible to gain access to Canadian detainees safely. He said it would be “beyond unacceptable” for Ottawa to continue to deny them consular access.
“I would be shocked and dismayed if that continues to be the Canadian government’s response … to simply continue with lines around, ‘Well it’s too dangerous to go there,’ or, ‘It’s too difficult to go there,'” Neve said. “None of that holds water anymore.”
Other countries, including the U.S. and Germany, have been able to provide consular assistance to their citizens in the region.
Canada’s civil society delegation, which included Neve, Sen. Kim Pate and former Canadian diplomat Scott Heatherington, said Canada needs to follow the lead of its allies.
Pate admitted there were security concerns while they were in the region. She said she was confident that all possible steps were taken to mitigate risks.
“We were able to gain access that the Canadian government told us was probably not possible,” she said. “Clearly, we showed that’s not true.”
The group met with two Canadian men held in Syria — including Jack Letts, who admitted in a 2019 interview to joining ISIS in Syria — and reported that both want consular assistance and to be able to return to Canada. They said both men claimed to have been questioned by the FBI but have never spoken to a Canadian security official since being detained.
Heatherington said that as a former diplomat, he was “puzzled” by the fact that the men hadn’t received any consular visits from the Canadian government.
The delegation also called on the government to repatriate citizens who wish to return to Canada and provide temporary residence permits to ensure that non-Canadian mothers and siblings of Canadian children can travel to Canada.
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