Relatives of Islamic State refugees accept repatriation decision by court
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Relatives of two women with eight children and two orphans of a former Islamic State (IS) Trinidadian fighter, who lost a lawsuit over failure of the Ministry of National Security to repatriate them from the Al-Hol refugee camp in north Syria, are now committed to working with national security officials to bring their relatives home.
In a press release issued yesterday, hours after High Court Judge Joan Charles dismissed their judicial review lawsuit, the relatives claimed that they would be guided by Charles’ decision but still pleaded with the Government to urgently consider their families’ plight.
“We are more than ready to comply with the necessary conditions to allow our loved ones to be merged appropriately back into society. We hope that the Government will re-think their position on this and make the humane decision,” the release said.
Although the release acknowledged that Charles made findings over the legal obligations of the State to citizens who voluntarily travel to conflict and war zones, it noted that they were especially concerned about the children, who had found themselves in the situation through no fault of their own.
“While members of our Government apparently have been sleeping peacefully while they suffer, we cannot rest easy while our families live like this. The recent decision only highlights the fact that our Government seems to be unconcerned while their lives hang in the balance,” it said.
The release also sought to highlight the plight of their relatives, who are part of a larger group of almost 100 women and children, who are either T&T citizens or are allegedly eligible for citizenship based on their parents’ nationality.
“These vulnerable T&T nationals are enduring extreme weather conditions, inadequate shelter, poor nutrition and contaminated water. The children are especially at risk of physical and sexual abuse,” it said
“The area recently became a deadly conflict zone, exacerbating our fears for our loved ones,” it added.
The relatives also claimed that they are willing to sign a civil contract and foot the bill for their families’ return.
Delivering a 19-page judgement in the group’s judicial review lawsuit on Monday afternoon, Charles ruled that she did not have the jurisdiction to order the ministry to approve their repatriation.
She also noted that the relatives appealed to the ministry to repatriate their families but failed to apply for travel exemptions under ongoing public health regulations for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There has been no failure by the minister to make a decision with respect to entry of the family members of the Intended Claimants in light of the failure by such family members and their relatives on their behalf to apply for an exemption,” Charles said.
In her judgement, Charles quoted extensively from evidence of Deputy Director of the ministry’s International Affairs Unit Richard Lynch, who also sits on the Repatriation and Reintegration Committee set up by former National Security Minister Stuart Young in 2018.
Lynch testified that the committee, dubbed “The Nightingale Committee,” was tasked with proposing a legislative framework to facilitate such repatriation.
While Lynch said the committee was in the process of completing its legislative mandate, he noted that it was hampered by the fact that the requests were coming from a conflict/war zone declared by the United Nations Security Council.
He also claimed that while this country has good diplomatic relations with Syria, its government is not in control of the camp.
He also suggested that before repatriation could take place there must be verification that the adult refugees are in fact T&T citizens. DNA testing will also have to be used to determine if the orphans are in fact the children of deceased T&T citizens, who went to join the Islamic State (IS) before its collapse.
“Significantly, he (Lynch) stated that it is not in the interest of the national security of T&T to rely on unverified information, particularly in the context of the potential for non-nationals with terrorist/criminal agendas, to impersonate nationals in order to leave/escape the aforementioned camp,” Charles said.
Charles also rejected claims that the ministry’s alleged failure breached the International Convention on the Right of Repatriation, which has not been ratified into local law.
“I agree with the Intended Defendant’s submission that the State is under no duty to intervene to protect a citizen who has suffered or is threatened with injury in a foreign state, nor is there any obligation under the Refugee Convention to assist refugees outside the State,” she said.
She also noted that aspects of this country’s constitution relied on by the group could not be enforced in a foreign state.
“This court cannot pronounce on matters that clearly fall within the domain of the policy imperatives of the Executive and Legislative arms of Government,” she said.
As part of her decision, Charles ordered the group’s relatives to pay the State’s legal costs for defending the lawsuit.
The group comprises of a 33-year-old woman, her children ages six and 11; a 35-year-old woman and her children ages three, five, 10, 12, and 14 (youngest two born in Syria) and two orphans ages three and four.
The camp, controlled by Kurdish forces, houses over 14,000 refugees from over 60 countries, who came to the region to join the IS and have been displaced since its collapse.
The refugees’ relatives were represented by Elton Prescott SC, Criston Williams and Kerrina Samdeo with Nafeesa Mohammed also appearing in court.