The Canadian government will not be prioritizing the return of foreign fighters from Syria despite a call from the U.S. State Department on Monday to do so.
Instead, the focus will remain on searching for ways to lay charges against those fighters and considering whether it is feasible to retrieve children born to Canadians who went overseas to fight with ISIS and are now being held in Kurdish or Syrian prisons.
“We’ve heard the request or suggestion from the United States but at this point, the fact of the matter remains that is a dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world in which we have no diplomatic presence and we are not going to put our diplomatic officers or our consular officials at risk,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters on Tuesday.
He noted that Canada has a smaller number of its citizens detained as foreign fighters than some other countries do. Global News has exclusively interviewed some of those detained fighters from on the ground in prisons in Syria, where they said they want to return to Canada.
While some of those individuals either brought their children with them or had children there, Goodale said the individuals who travelled need to bear the weight of their decisions and that Canadian lives will not be endangered to try retrieving them.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” he said when asked specifically whether he was concerned the individuals could be either released or killed if they are not repatriated.
“These are people who’ve come from various places around the world — in the case of North America, abandoning the comfortable confines of free and open democracies to go halfway around the world to engage with terrorist organizations. They need to assume the responsibility for their behaviour.”
Goodale added that while members of the coalition against ISIS are considering whether there are any options to protect the children of those individuals, answers do not “leap forward.”
“The behaviour of the parents who have put the children in that situation is absolutely appalling and reprehensible,” he said.
“We will examine carefully what can reasonably be done to protect those who are innocent in these circumstances but this is a situation which Daesh has created and to which those who have gone to that part of the world to participate, and they need to shoulder their responsibility.”
He continued, noting, “There is no easy answer where you can snap your fingers and say, ‘Presto, they’re protected.’”
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said her party asked the government to table its plan to deal with foreign fighters six months ago and they offered only “talking points” in their response.
She said the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria are well-documented and that if the government can’t prosecute ISIS fighters under the existing law, they should change the laws to make sure those prosecutions can take place.
“Our first and foremost role as legislators should be making sure there is a framework to bring them to justice,” she said.
“If the government feels that they can’t do this then they need to change the legislative framework to get there, otherwise how do we deter people from taking part in this in the future?”
The U.S. State Department on Monday issued a statement urging other countries to bring their citizens home.
That call comes after the surprise announcement by the Trump administration in December that it will withdraw all American forces from northeastern Syria.
“The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin,” U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said.
Roughly 900 foreign fighters accused of having been part of ISIS have been detained by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Another 4,000 of those held by the SDF are family to the foreign fighters — usually wives or children.
In the case of Canada, there are four men, three women and seven children known to be held.
But Families Against Violent Extremism, a group representing the families of those accused of being ISIS fighters, says the number is actually 24.