“There are no other operations of the sort ongoing,” Trudeau told reporters Monday in Ottawa. He said Amira’s case was “exceptional” because she was orphaned.
The girl was found last year walking alone on a road leading from the Syrian village of Baghouz, an Islamic State stronghold that had been overrun by the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces. Her parents, Canadians suspected of having joined the Islamic State, and three siblings had been killed in an airstrike during one of the last battles to crush the self-declared caliphate.
For more than a year, an uncle in Canada has pressed Ottawa to repatriate the girl from the sprawling al-Hol camp, where some 65,000 civilians displaced by the fighting are being held in dire conditions. On Sunday morning, a Canadian official telephoned the uncle’s lawyer to say Amira had been removed from the camp in the care of a consular official and was on her way to Canada.
“We are delighted by this news and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has made this possible,” Amira’s uncle said in an anonymous statement released by Ottawa-based lawyer Lawrence Greenspon. “We would kindly request privacy as my niece transitions to her new life in Canada.”
Amira is the first Canadian to be repatriated from the camps that hold former Islamic State fighters and their families. Her rescue is certain to add to pressure on Trudeau’s Liberal government to bring home the 46 other Canadians there. They include 25 children who were taken to Iraq or Syria by family members or, like Amira, were born into the caliphate.
The government of Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, approved legislation that allowed Canada to strip the citizenship of dual nationals who were convicted of terrorism-related offenses in Canadian courts. Trudeau’s government repealed the law soon after he was elected in 2015.
“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” he said during his campaign. “And you devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for everyone.”
But since then, Canada, like other countries, has balked at taking its citizens back from Syria, citing dangerous conditions and the lack of a diplomatic presence. Leaders in some countries have fretted about a backlash among their citizens if they brought suspected Islamic State fighters home and the possibility that evidence they might use to prosecute them might not stand up in their courts.
Critics including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have accused Canada of shirking its international obligations, pointing out that Canadian allies such as the United States and France have surmounted similar obstacles to repatriate some of their nationals.
Amira’s uncle told Human Rights Watch that he recognized his niece in a photo circulated by a nongovernmental organization in 2019. He sought Ottawa’s help in bringing her home but was repeatedly stymied.
An aid group arranged a video call between Amira and her uncle in December 2019, Human Rights Watch reported. Her cheeks were so swollen from an untreated tooth infection that she couldn’t close her mouth.
The uncle traveled to the camp in February. He managed to meet with Amira for about an hour and show her pictures of her family in Canada, but he was not able to bring her home because there was no Canadian official present to sign the repatriation documents the Kurds required for her to leave.
The uncle filed a legal action against the Canadian government in July, accusing it of violating her rights as a citizen by failing to bring her home, including by not issuing emergency travel documents for her.
Farida Deif, the Canada director for Human Rights Watch, welcomed the news of Amira’s repatriation in a tweet. But she said it “does not absolve Canada of its responsibility” to bring home the rest of its citizens.
Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said he was “pleased” that Amira will be united with her family. He did not comment on plans for the rest of the Canadians.
Greenspon, who represents other Canadian families with members in the camps, said Amira’s repatriation has given them “new hope.”
“We have to see what the government’s intentions are,” he said. “In doing this, they had to understand that when you repatriate one Canadian, the other 46 that are still there and their families are going to be wondering, ‘Why not me?’”