CANBERRA, Australia — When Kamalle Dabboussy learned this month that President Donald Trump was removing troops from northeastern Syria, he pulled over in his car and wept.
For months, Dabboussy has been lobbying the Australian government to remove his daughter and three grandchildren from a detention camp for relatives of Islamic State fighters. Now, he believes, the window to save them is closing.
“It’s tough; it’s scary,” he told his daughter, Mariam, during a recent phone call. Dabboussy tried to comfort her. “We’re still pushing,” he said.
The fate of tens of thousands of women and children in Kurdish-run detainee camps in Syria has posed a challenge for governments around the world since the Islamic State lost its last territory there earlier this year. But the chaos and violence that have followed the U.S. pullback have intensified questions about what duty nations have to citizens detained abroad, even those affiliated with a brutal terrorist group.
Dabboussy has been leading a contingent of about a dozen Australian families seeking the return of more than 65 relatives, most of them children. He has traveled to the Al-Hol camp, where his daughter is being held in what he describes as unbearable conditions. He has spent months writing letters, calling politicians and uniting families who had kept the dark secret of their missing loved ones.
The women and children at Al-Hol, from about 50 countries, have been largely shunned by their home governments. In Australia, top leaders have cited a long list of reasons they cannot be repatriated, including security concerns.
Even if a cease-fire announced late last week holds, the Australian government has said, it is still far too risky to consider extracting the detainees. Officials said they would not put other lives in danger to save the women and children.
“Parents, mothers and fathers, have made a decision to take children into a theater of war,” the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, told reporters in Canberra, the capital, on Friday. “We’ve been very clear we’re not going to put Australian defense, foreign affairs or home affairs personnel or other agency staff at risk.” He added, “They’ve been fighting in the name of an evil organization, and there are consequences.”
The Australian government has maintained that at least some of the women joined the Islamic State willingly and could pose a threat to national security. In some cases, it has even canceled the citizenship of fighters and family members it has deemed to be radicalized.
While many women from around the world joined the terrorist group of their own accord, the families of all the Australian women in Al-Hol say they were coerced by husbands and other family members. Many say they are related by blood or marriage to Muhammad Zahab, a Sydney teacher turned Islamic State fighter, who they say delivered them to Syria.
Dabboussy says that his 28-year-old daughter, while on a vacation in Turkey, was tricked by her husband into going to the border with Syria. She was then forced to cross at gunpoint.
He and other family members of those inside Al-Hol have become increasingly desperate to free them as fears have grown that Syrian government forces could displace the Kurds and take over the camp.
“That is a horrendous thought,” Dabboussy said. “Death might be the more merciful option.”
Conditions inside the camp were already miserable, with hundreds of children dying from disease and malnutrition, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Some women deemed apostates by more radicalized women have reported beatings and mutilation.
The Australian families argue that there are legal mechanisms to deal with the women, if necessary, after they return home. “We understand the rule of law,” Dabboussy said.
Lawyers representing the women argue that Australia has a constitutional duty to repatriate citizens and apply due process. These legal obligations include a duty to investigate crimes of an international nature, and to protect Australian citizens who are detained overseas, said Sarah Condon, one of the lawyers, who is based in Melbourne.
Policy experts also say that in some cases in which mothers are deemed to be radicalized, the state has a duty to take their children into its custody. Others argue that the government has a moral obligation to extract children who had no say in their parents’ journey to Islamic State territory.
Some who study terrorism warn of the risks of leaving the women to potentially escape the camp amid the disarray. That, they argue, could help lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State.
“There are certainly threats and risks when you repatriate people, but there’s also risks to not addressing this issue,” said Lydia Khalil, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who specializes in the Middle East and international terrorism. She said the camp and other detention sites were “already hotbeds of further radicalization.”
U.N. Security Council resolutions mandate that countries take action to have their citizens who joined the Islamic State brought before the law.
But while “every government calls for other countries to repatriate their citizens,” said David Malet, a political scientist at American University in Washington, “most do what they can to avoid repatriating their own.”
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have urged other countries to take back their citizens. As of July, a handful had been repatriated to the United States, according to a report by the Rojava Information Center, a group that does research on the Kurdish areas of Syria.
Some countries with sizable Muslim populations have repatriated large numbers of detainees, and European countries have reportedly been looking at using the cease-fire to return women and children.
Australia has brought home fewer than 10 children since the camp opened, mostly orphans.
While Dutton, the conservative home affairs minister, has maintained that returning those in the camp “would be very dangerous,” his counterpart in the opposition Labor Party, Kristina Keneally, has said that information from authorities indicates that some of the women are genuine victims.
Keneally said that “the government has a full tool kit” to be able to “detain and prosecute and control people who would seek to do us harm.” She noted a bill passed in July that enables the government both to delay the return of foreign fighters and their families, and to impose conditions on them once they have done so.
Dabboussy said Kurdish contacts had assured him that safe routes to remove the women and children remained open.
All last week, messages and calls from the Al-Hol camp streamed to Dabboussy’s phone.
“This is not what we deserve,” one woman said in a voice message sent from Al-Hol. She added: “We’re scared; we need help; we really need urgent help. Please help us.”