Four Australian families held in detention in north-east Syria after the fall of Islamic State are set to arrive in Sydney within days following an operation by the federal government.
The families, made up of four mothers and 13 or more children, departed the camp late on Thursday Australian time, and were taken to Iraq, Guardian Australia has confirmed.
It is the first time Australians captured after the fall of the terrorist group have been returned to the country since eight orphans from two separate families were repatriated in 2019.
Guardian Australia has confirmed that among those returning to the country are Mariam Dabboussy and her three children, who had been held in the Roj camp.
Mariam’s father, Kamalle Dabboussy, has been the main spokesperson for Australian families whose children and grandchildren had been detained in Syria.
The families being repatriated are all originally from Sydney, where it is expected they will resettle.
The four families represent less than half of the Australian women and children held in the camp.
About 40 women and children who remain there are expected to be returned in two seperate repatriations in coming weeks.
Guardian Australia reported earlier this month that the government was preparing a repatriation, but the speed of Thursday’s developments still shocked some of those involved.
It remains unclear whether any of the women or their children will be charged with criminal offences relating to their time in Syria. Some of the women previously declared themselves willing to be placed on federal government control orders should they be repatriated.
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There have been relatively few prosecutions of Australians who travelled to Syria or Iraq to join the terrorist group, and those who have been prosecuted were men acting alone or in small groups.
In contrast, some women detained in the camp say they were forced or coerced by their husbands or other male family members into leaving for the so-called caliphate.
In the more than three years since the fall of Baghouz, the Islamic State’s last stronghold, there have been two parallel efforts in Australia that appear set to culminate in coming weeks: the push by family and friends of the women and children to engage government, aid groups and the media to draw attention to their plight; and moves by police and intelligence agencies to gather information on those detained in Syria with a view to charging them upon their return.
Australia has been somewhat of a laggard in repatriating citizens who were detained after the fall of the terror group, although other western nations have been similarly reluctant.
Earlier this week, the Canadian government repatriated citizens from Syria for the first time. Of the two women, one was immediately charged with terrorism offences, and the other was arrested with a view to being placed on a terrorism peace bond.
A spokesperson for the Australian home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, declined to comment on the repatriation, saying: “Given the sensitive nature of the matters involved, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”
Anthony Albanese dismissed concerns by the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, that the families represented a national security risk, saying the mission had taken place only after the government received advice on the risk.
“The former government did bring back some children from that area … and I’d say to my parliamentary colleagues who are aware of the national security implications here, of information being in the public arena, that the national security agencies would prefer to remain out of the public domain at this point in time,” the prime minister said.
“I don’t intend to add to it.”
Dutton had earlier told Sky News that while he wished the families well and hoped their transition was successful he worried “about people coming back from the theatre of war, particularly when they’ve been in the circumstance where they’ve been mixing with people who hate our country and hate our way of life.”
The shadow home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, questioned why information about the mission had been made public before it was complete.
“Sensitive missions risking the lives of Australians – including those that are in overseas camps – need to be treated carefully, and with due consideration of the information being made public.
“The home affairs minister needs to come clean with how this level of information – before a mission or missions finish – is currently in the public domain.”
The secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, later said articles published in The Australian from earlier in October and on Friday had been referred to the Australian federal police by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet because they may have resulted from a national security breach.
Pezzullo, speaking during a Senate estimates hearing on Friday, would not go into whether the reporting was correct, but said the potential for a leak was being investigated.
Asked in general about how the situation was being monitored in Syria, Pezzullo said Asio remained the primary agency, working with international partners.
“The conditions on the ground, including the permissiveness or otherwise of our ability to access, physically access, those camps and the autonomous area of north-east Syria has been kept constantly under review,” he said.