CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The first group of Australian women and children held in a Syrian camp since the Islamic State group fell in 2019 was bound for Sydney despite government opponents arguing they pose an unacceptable extremist threat, a media organization reported on Friday.
The four women and 13 children had left the Roj detention camp in northeast Syria on Thursday and were taken to Iraq before boarding a flight to Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
They would be the only Australians involved in the Islamic State campaign in the Middle East to be officially repatriated apart from the eight offspring of two slain combatants. The fighters’ children and grandchildren were returned by the previous Australian government in 2019.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese did not comment on the details of the ABC report. He also would not say what would happen once the group reached Australia or whether they would be monitored.
“My government will always act to keep Australians safe and will always act on the advice of the national security agencies,” Albanese told reporters.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil also declined to comment.
“Given the sensitive nature of the matters involved, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” her office said in a statement.
Australian officials had assessed the returning group as the most vulnerable among 60 Australian women and children held in Roj, the ABC said. Most of the children were born in Syria.
Their return would likely be the first step in repatriating all Australians detained in Syria, the ABC reported.
Senior lawmakers in the previous conservative government that was voted out of office in May elections after nine years in power say their administration did not repatriate more Australians from Syria because of the domestic risk they would pose if they had been radicalized.
Opposition leader Peter Dutton said that view firmed after a confidential briefing from Mike Burgess, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the nation’s domestic spy agency known as ASIO.
“I must say that I am more strongly of the view now that there is a very significant risk in bringing some of these people to our country that can’t be mitigated, frankly. Not to the level we would require to keep Australians safe,” Dutton said earlier this month.
“We need to understand how it is with limited resources ASIO and the Australian Federal Police can provide the guarantees to keep the Australian public safe,” Dutton added.
Albanese said on Friday his government had acted on national security advice just as his predecessors had done when the eight children were repatriated.
Australian allies in the Middle East conflict including the United States, Germany and France have already repatriated dozens of their citizens in similar circumstances in Syria.
A British woman who repatriated with her child this month became the first adult to be allowed back into Britain from a Syrian camp since Islamic State fell.