Morrison says government will ‘cooperate’ with Isis fighter families if they get to Australian consulate

The prime minister has confirmed the government is working with the Red Cross in response to Australian family members of Isis fighters stuck in Syrian displacement camps, as NGOs warn children face “extremely grave” conditions.

There are an estimated 70 children born to Australian nationals in the displacement camps, which are holding tens of thousands of wives and children of Isis fighters.

Scott Morrison stood by previous comments that he was “not going to put any Australian life at risk to extract people from these conflict zones” but said the government would “cooperate” with an extraction process if those affected could get to a place where they could return to Australia. The government is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It followed reports by News Corp on Friday that the government could help the wives and young children of Australians who joined Islamic State if they got to an Australian embassy or consulate.

Morrison said there were identification and citizenship assessments that would be needed but “we would follow the normal processes for issuing of travel documents after all those other matters have been addressed.

“But I am not going to put one Australian life at risk for that,” he said.

“Where there are Australians who are caught up in this situation – particularly as innocent children – we will do what I think Australians would expect us to do on their behalf.”

Elaine Pearson, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said it was unrealistic to expect women and children who were being detained in a camp to find their way to a consulate or embassy, and it was “frankly a bit of a furphy” to say lives could be put at risk to get the Australians out of the camp.

“There are aid workers going in and out of those camps, and we have visited those camps in north-east Syria. It’s in a more stable part of the region,” Pearson told Guardian Australia.

Government officials might be at more risk than NGOs, she said, but they could use video conferencing and DNA kits to identify people before bussing them out.

“I think there are legitimate security concerns, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to abandon young children and women in squalid camps abroad.”

Aid group Save the Children is working inside the displacement camps, where there are an estimated 3,500 children born of foreign nationals.

Paul Ronalds, chief executive of Save the Children Australia, said about 70 were believed to be Australian, including children brought over by their parents and children born there.

“The issue of putting Australian lives at risk is a little bit of a distraction,” said Ronalds.

“The Kurdish authorities are keen to facilitate the transfer of these children and there are a range of other actors… who could assist with getting these kids into a place, effectively to an Australian consulate or to Australian consulate officials.

“But I don’t think it’s a barrier to getting these kids back to Australia where they can get the help they obviously need.”

Dr Abdulkarim Omar, chair of the foreign relations commission in North Syria, told the Sydney Morning Herald the Kurdish authorities couldn’t make arrangements for returning women and children until foreign governments made contact.

“We will give those kids to them and any other women and kids they request,” he said.

Several Australian families have been publicly identified in the camps, including the children and grandchildren of Khaled Sharrouf, who is believed to have died alongside his eight and nine-year-old sons in a US air strike in 2017.

Two daughters, including 17-year-old Zaynab who is pregnant and reportedly ill, were taken to Syria by their parents.

The family of Mohammed Noor Masri is also in a camp and has pleaded to be brought back to Australia. Masri, who is currently detained by Kurdish forces, married Shayma Assaad after she was brought to Syria by her parents at the age of 15, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday. She has three sons and is pregnant.

“Everybody makes mistakes in life and I reckon we deserve a chance. The young kids don’t know anything in life yet,” she told the paper.

The paper also tracked down Kirsty Rosse-Emile, a 24-year-old also living in al-Hawl camp, pregnant and with a two-year-old daughter.

Another Australian woman interviewed by the ABC and believed to be 24-year-old Zehra Duman, said she had two sick children.

Ronalds said the NGO was screening children on arrival at the camp and 30% were screening as acutely malnourished.

“This is a really significant issue and we’ve seen more than 80 deaths of children either on route or on arrival in these camps,” he said.

“Kids are dying, the conditions are extremely grave. They aren’t able to access the sort of care they need.”

Ronalds said Australia should be concerned about the security risk of the Isis-affiliated adults and children returning from the Syrian conflict, but the children were the innocent victims and shouldn’t be “punished for the crimes of their parents”.

“Obviously their parents, if they’ve committed crimes they should be appropriately tried in Australian courts,” he said.

“It’s not appropriate for us to wash our hands and say [the children] are the problem of the Kurdish authorities or the Iraqis.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been contacted for comment.