An Australian mother of five kept at al-Hawl camp in the north Syria lost his citizenship – retroactive for three years – leaving two of his children potentially stateless and potentially permanently dividing her family.
The woman, who held Australian and Lebanese citizenship, was informed by letter this week that her citizenship had been extinguished, dating back more than three years.
Three of their children were born in Australia and retain Australian citizenship: their two youngest children, born in Syria, cannot claim Lebanese citizenship (which is paternity) and have no documents to prove their nationality.
In accordance with international law, it is illegal for Australia or any country to make anyone stateless.
The children's father, a former Isis fighter, is currently being held in a Turkish prison. He also held dual Australian and Lebanese citizenship, but has since been stripped of his Australian nationality.
The Australian Department of Internal Affairs, while refusing to comment on the individual case, said it "takes seriously its international obligations regarding the rights and protection of children."
“There is no consequent loss of citizenship for a child if their parents lose their Australian citizenship.
"A child born outside Australia is eligible to register for Australian citizenship by descent if one parent was an Australian citizen at birth."
This may still exclude the woman's two youngest children because of the retroactive effect of her denationalization and the father of the children.
There are currently 19 Australian women and 47 Australian children held at al-Hawl camp. The Australian Government is aware of their identities and the good faith of their Australian citizenship or the right to claim such citizenship.
They are relatives of former foreign fighters who were captured or killed. None of the Australian women in the camp were combatants, and many were coerced, forced or tricked into traveling to Syria.
The youngest son of the Australian group is under two months old, born on November 30 last year.
If children and their mothers could reach an Australian embassy or consulate, the Australian government would be legally required to provide travel documents to return home.
Governments around the world have repatriated their citizens from al-Hawl camp. In recent weeks, the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, Norway, Denmark, Trinidad and Tobago and Germany, supported by the Kurdish-run Syrian Defense Force, have been repatriating their citizens. Belgium plans to repatriate 10 orphaned children after being ordered by a court.
Sources inside the camp say Kurdish authorities, who still control the area, have set a safe route across the Iraqi border for foreign citizens, but it is the political will of countries like Australia to prevent citizens from being repatriated.
Observers say Kurdish control of the region is weak and should be challenged by larger military forces in the coming months: Russian-backed Syrian forces in the south and Turkish forces in the north.
Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter and three grandchildren are held in al-Hawl and spokeswoman for the Australian women's and children's group, said the government should rescind its decision to remove citizenship from the Australian mother.
"We do not believe this is the intention of the legislation, but this is its effect, leaving two children effectively stateless.
"I met these children – the oldest is three or four years old – we know these children, but they have no documents to prove they exist, and now Australia leaves them without nationality."
Dabboussy said the women in the camp had agreed to submit to the Australian justice system upon their return and that the children held in the camp had done nothing wrong. He said that every day left in al-Hawl's dangerous conditions makes it difficult to reintegrate eventually – and inevitably, because they are Australian citizens – into Australian society.
Australia's unilateral action to take back citizenship retroactively comes as the powerful United Nations Human Rights Council, where Australia is, nations around the world should repatriate their children from the Syrian camps and stop withdrawing citizenship from their war-caught citizens.
On a inflexible report, an independent commission reported on the indignities and punishments inflicted on children during the Syrian conflict, including murder, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest, denial of food, water and medicines, and forced recruitment.
The commission urged third countries to protect their children caught in the ongoing violence.
He said the counties of origin should "take immediate steps to simplify registration of their Syrian-born nationals with the ultimate goal of repatriating them and their caregivers as soon as possible."
"Countries of origin should also refrain from removing parents from their nationality in light of the impact on children."
“Mothers should be repatriated with their children to ensure adherence to the best interests of the child principle. Any subsequent legal proceedings against parents should be conducted with due regard to international human rights law. ”
Mat Tinkler, director of international programs and policies at Save the Children, told the Guardian that the UN report was a clear warning to all governments, including Australia, of the dire consequences for children of denationalization.
"The United Nations makes it clear that denying these children the right to citizenship puts them at greater risk of exploitation and abuse."
Citizenship is regularly posed as one of the most fundamental human rights, "the right to have rights" from which others flow. Without citizenship, children find it more difficult to access education, health care or basic protections of the law.
"We are aware of several cases in which Australian government decisions can effectively make a child stateless," said Tinkler.
“The Australian government has a responsibility to protect these innocent children, to act in their best interests. We sincerely hope that they will comply with the UN warning before it is too late. "
Conditions at al-Hawl camp get worse and worse. Up to 70,000 women and children are kept in the countryside, where the Syrian winter has brought freezing temperatures, snow, flooding from tents where families live and widespread disease. Violence, including murders, is common, children die regularly from disease and others are injured when tents burn.
Many observers have raised concerns that it is acting as a extremism incubator and, if left to languish, a potential resurgence site for Isis.