But a number say they were tricked into going (the caliphate offered rewards to men who brought in new women). And a few were children themselves when they were taken to Syria or Iraq by their families. Since then, they have lived in a war zone for four or five years under threat of airstrikes, artillery bombardment and ground attack. They have seen their husbands and male relatives killed, then have been forced to marry and have children with strangers.
They have raised their children while fleeing from one stronghold to another, hiding, frightened and desperate for food. And since the fall of that final stronghold in Baghouz, they have lived for almost a year in tents with 70,000 others in the extremes of heat and cold. Any enthusiasm most had for the caliphate has likely long since been crushed out of them.
Shayma Assaad was taken to Syria by her family when she was 15. Now she is 19 and has four children, including baby Mariam. She spoke for all of them when she told me in the camp last October: “Really, our kids basically just want a normal life.”
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton argues it’s unsafe to bring these people out. But the Kurdish authority that controls the area is delighted to facilitate safe transfer. I, like many journalists and photographers and humanitarian workers, have travelled in and around the region. It’s often forgotten, but Australian public servants went to Syria last year and brought back a number of orphans, who we cannot identify for legal reasons, but who had become a source of public debate and therefore embarrassment to the government.
Our system can handle these people – our courts deal with this number of new cases daily, and the women have offered to submit to control orders. We are a rich country and, unlike the country they are in, we have a functioning, well-resourced legal and justice system. Their supporters in Australia are preparing to accept them back, knitting together community bonds to try to reintegrate them, to de-traumatise their children and, if their mothers need to spend time in prison for crimes committed overseas, to care for them.
Leaving them in Syria also has its dangers for us. ASIO, in a submission to the federal government, has warned of the risk of allowing these children to come to maturity in camps and as stateless people, but equipped with strong identification with Australia, good English skills and a hatred of how they were abandoned. In a networked world, they could become the next generation of online terror recruiters.
It’s safer to treat their trauma, watch them, and if they go off the rails, deal with them through our justice system.
The government’s preference has been to look for ways to strip the women and their husbands of Australian citizenship from afar – ironic considering the struggles it has had in recent years proving which of its own MPs were citizens eligible to sit in Parliament.
So, for now, the women and children in al-Hawl are in a holding pattern. The camp is not secure for them inside – where murderous fanatics still impose IS’s moral code – or outside. The Kurdish region of north-eastern Syria is relatively stable but surrounded by five other combatant groups.
The Kurds, who lost tens of thousands of fighters helping the west defeat IS, are now responsible for guarding them and their families and keeping them alive. The Kurds have no state, no functioning justice system, and are fighting wars potentially on several fronts. The West’s expectation that they continue indefinitely guarding our wayward citizens is unfair and immoral.
The Kurds have begged other countries to take their nationals back. Iraq, of all places, is now doing so. It’s building camps to house Iraqi women and children and to put them through its brutal summary justice system. The Kurds will start putting fighters (not, at this stage, women and children) on trial using an ad hoc system that will have uncertain outcomes and which we have no influence over.
All this increases the moral responsibility, and the self-interest, of Australia to clean up its own mess, to deal with its own citizens. Like them or not, they are products of our society. So let’s deal with them here.
Michael Bachelard is The Age’s investigations editor. He has worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. He has written two books and won multiple awards for journalism, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.