Kristina Keneally has warned the window to bring home Australians held in prisons and camps in northern Syria is closing, arguing the government has a moral duty to repatriate women and children taken to formerly Islamic State-controlled territories against their will.
The shadow home affairs minister made the comments on Sunday, after the sudden withdrawal of US troops and the Turkish invasion of Kurdish-dominated areas led to warnings Kurdish troops will abandon Isis prisons and the expectation of a breakout from a camp at al-Hawl, home to about 60,000 women and children with links to Isis.
Keneally also put pressure on the Morrison government to return people who fought for Isis, pointing to the possible resurgence of Isis if they are left in Syria and arguing the government has a “full toolkit” to manage the risk of bringing them back to Australia.
Keneally told ABC’s Insiders that the home affairs department had briefed her that while some women in prison or the camp at al-Hawl “do retain a determination to commit terrorist acts”, others are “genuine victims” taken to Syria by deception or against their will.
“I think all Australians would agree with the prime minister and [home affairs] minister [Peter] Dutton that the 40 or so Australian children or children who have a claim to an Australian citizenship are indeed innocent victims,” she said.
Keneally said the Morrison government has a “full toolkit” to detain, prosecute and control “people who would seek to do us harm”, citing laws that allow Australians to be temporarily excluded from returning if they pose a threat and offences for entering a declared area.
“The temporary exclusion orders were only passed by the parliament a few months ago and they are specifically designed to manage and prosecute where appropriate the return of those foreign fighters.”
Keneally noted that “while there is a risk to bringing these people back, there is also a risk to not bringing them back”, citing the independent national security legislation monitor’s observation that foreign fighters left in Afghanistan in the 1970s went on to form al-Qaeda and reports of Isis members escaping prison.
Keneally noted that the United States had called on its western allies to bring back people involved in fighting for Isis and she warned of the risk of prison outbreaks.
“While there are risks, we do have legislative tools in place to protect our national security and there is a significant risk, both to the region, the world and indeed to Australia if foreign fighters are left there in Syria.”
Asked if the government should bring them home to Australia, Keneally replied: “If possible, the government needs to consider the options in front of it.
“I know, from having met with the families of some of these women and children, that they have been concerned for some time that the window of opportunity to extract these people has been narrowing and will at one point close.”
Keneally said the families “have had a sense in recent weeks that the government had been preparing for an extraction” but “only the government can confirm that”.
“Where we are at now, Australians would expect the government to be making the right decisions, both in terms of our national security and morally.”
The US president Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria has caused consternation among the Australian Kurdish community, which has accused the US of abandoning the Kurdish people.
In the wide-ranging interview, Keneally continued her critique of the Morrison government’s failure to stop asylum seekers arriving to Australia by plane, suggesting it may not know if asylum seekers who came to Australia have died working in “exploitative conditions”.
Keneally also noted the consensus among medical groups, including the Australian Medical Association, against the Coalition’s proposal to repeal medical evacuation provisions.
“When we’re sick we seek doctors’ advice. What we have here today are 11 of the most significant medical colleges in the country, doctors of every type across Australia saying that their prescription is medevac works,” she said.
“We stand with the doctors in noting that medevac is ensuring that people who are sick are able to get the medical treatment that they need.”
According to the parliamentary library, only the home affairs department supported repealing the medevac provisions out of a total of 84 individuals and groups who made submissions to a parliamentary inquiry.
The Coalition needs the vote of independent senator Jacqui Lambie to repeal medevac provisions, although no vote is expected until after the inquiry reports on 18 October.