Opinion: Canada needs to end repatriation of Islamic fighters

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As a Yezidi survivor of the 2014 genocide committed by the Islamic State (IS), I have serious concerns regarding public safety as Canada repatriates former IS terrorists. Since the IS’s defeat in Syria in 2019, the Canadian government has been grappling with cases involving Canadians who left to join the group. Some of these citizens have been repatriated, while others remain in IS camps under the control of Kurdish forces in Syria.

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In 2015, the Conservative Party of Canada passed Bill C-24, a law allowing Canada to revoke the citizenship of Canadians who joined the IS. Some legal scholars oppose such laws, likening the revocation of citizenship to historical practices of exile and banishment. Countries, including Australia and the U.K., that have implemented similar laws have encountered legal challenges, as these laws can either render a person “stateless” (without any citizenship) or establish disparate treatment between individuals with dual citizenship and those with only one.

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As a solution, the Liberals revoked the portion of Bill C-24 that allowed the stripping of citizenship from dual citizens who joined a terrorist organization. Without the power to strip citizenship, the government has opted not to repatriate Canadian citizens held captive by Kurds in IS camps. Government lawyers claim it would be “unprecedented and unprincipled” to assist these detained suspects and assert that “there is no legal obligation, under the Charter, statute or international law for Canada to provide consular assistance, including the repatriation of its citizens.” 

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However, a lawsuit has led the Federal Court to order the government to repatriate at least four men accused of being IS fighters. These individuals, who allegedly participated in crimes against humanity, knowingly left Canada to join IS. However, due to their use of false names and a pervasive lack of evidence, it remains doubtful that they will face justice in Canada or at the International Criminal Court if they return home for trial. The CBC quotes a former CSIS analyst as saying he “doubts any of the adults returning would face justice for any crimes they may have committed,” because “the witnesses aren’t here, the evidence isn’t here.”

Repatriating former IS members without prosecution is an injustice to Yezidis and all others who survived their crimes against humanity. The only path left for justice is for the government to reimplement Bill C-24 in full, allowing Canada to strip the citizenship of suspected IS members, leaving them in the prison camps where they belong. Further to that, Canada should pass a new law that does not require a legal conviction but rather a hearing in something equivalent to a closed tribunal. A legal process has too high a burden of proof in a war zone, such as the conflict in Syria and northern Iraq. 

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The situation Canada faces, whether to bring IS fighters back home, is not just about politics; it’s about real people who have suffered unimaginably. Canada must find a way to bring justice to survivors like the Yezidis and to protect its citizens. Putting Bill C-24 back into action and creating a special court-like system could help ensure IS members are held accountable without legally complicating things, given our government’s limited evidence against these fighters.

As someone who has experienced IS cruelty first-hand, I ask Canada to make careful and strong choices. We must ensure that those who cause suffering cannot just walk away, and we must remember and honour all the people who were hurt or lost.

It is a tough path, but it’s the right thing to do.

Saif Mito is a Mount Royal University student in Calgary and a Yezidi survivor.

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