The withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria has caused panic and confusion among Australian women stuck in refugee camps in the region, their relatives say.
Advocates of the Australian women and children believe the government has just days to act before Turkey could invade and conflict resumes.
Kamalle Dabboussy has been lobbying for the Australian government to repatriate the remaining 66 Australians, including his daughter Mariam and two grandchildren.
He stepped up those calls on Tuesday, fearing Turkey will take the opportunity to seize control of the area surrounding the al-Hawl camp from the Kurds.
“They can’t run, they can’t go anywhere, so they are stuck in what would be another war zone,” he said.
“There was confusion, there has been fear there has been panic and the women feel quite abandoned.”
The shock US announcement that effectively gives the green light to Turkey’s long-held plans for a military offensive has increased tension at the camps.
But the Australian government is in no rush to bring the remaining women back.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds told reporters on Tuesday it was a very difficult situation.
“It is a very dangerous area and we will not be endangering the lives of other Australians. It is that simple,” she said.
Threat to Australia
There are 66 Australians left in refugee camps in the northeast of the Middle East country.
More than 40 are children, most of which are under five, including five babies that have been born in the camp.
The government has good reason to be cautious about bringing the adults back, says counter-terrorism and social cohesion senior researcher at the Australian National University Jacinta Carroll.
“Most of the Australian IS members in al-Hawl continue to identify as IS and hold privileged positions in the terrorist organisation,” Ms Carroll said.
“This means that they may not want to confirm their identity for fear of being prosecuted for crimes in Australia
“Others are married to non-Australians who are being held in other detention arrangements, and may wish to remain close to their husbands.”
But Mr Dabboussy says many of them were coerced to go to Syria or were still children themselves when they left Australia.
“None of these women were combatants; there’s been no evidence that they’re a security risk to Australia,” he said.
He said they and their families understood they may face criminal charges when they return.
Ms Carroll said the future of the children born to Australian mothers or fathers is even more complex.
“The situation of young children is particularly difficult, as those born in ISIS territory don’t yet have citizenship, and many have parents from different countries which means ultimate ‘responsibility’ for them may not be clear,” she said.
Labor’s Home Affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally encouraged the Australian government to continue to work with families and national security agencies to determine if it’s possible to extract the children.
“There are some people in those camps who do need to face criminal charges, but there are others who are genuine victims including and especially the children of Australians, children who are either born overseas, who have been taken overseas by their parents, they are true victims here,” the senator told SBS News.
Kurds offer Australia best hope
Save the Children policy director Mat Tinkler said the government’s best window of opportunity to bring its citizens to safety was while the camp was under Kurdish administration.
“That window still exists, we’re calling on the Australian government to act urgently and prioritise communication with that Kurdish administration and bring those Australians home to safety before it’s too late.”
Mr Dabboussy agreed the risk has increased since the US announcement.
“They are at risk with finding themselves in the middle of the warzone, they are at risk by possible attacks by ISIS sleeper cells external to the camp… they’re at risk by the radicalised women inside the camp,” he said.
He said many of the Australian women have been denounced as non-believers, putting them at more risk of attack.
Turkey has indicated it wants to create a small buffer zone, meaning al-Hawl would remain far from the conflict zone.
But Ms Carroll said if Turkish forces advance further to attack the Syrian Kurds, the al-Hawl camp could end up in the firing line or be more vulnerable if Kurdish troops leave the camp to focus on fighting further north.
As conditions at al-Hawl deteriorate and uncertainty increases, Mr Dabboussy said it was only a matter of time before an Australian died.
“On the ground there is no one supporting the Australian women, they are by themselves and they desperately need the help of the Australian Government for their survival.”