Australia open to return of IS fighter's orphaned children

By Agence France-Presse

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday he was open to allowing the return of orphaned children of an Australian jihadist in a Syrian refugee camp following their desperate plea for help.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he found Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comments about the New Zealand attack "very offensive" (AFP Photo/Diego OPATOWSKI / MANILA BULLETIN) Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (AFP Photo/Diego OPATOWSKI / MANILA BULLETIN)

Morrison said his government was working with the Red Cross so the children could leave the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria and Australian officials could assess them.

"Where they might be in a position to return to Australia, we will cooperate with that process," Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

"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."

The PM added that he would not put "any Australian life at risk to extract people from these conflict zones", a stance he has taken in recent weeks despite pleas from their grandmother Karen Nettleton.

Morrison's comments came as Hoda Sharrouf -- the 16-year-old daughter of Australian Islamic State fighter Khaled Sharrouf -- said she was worried about her siblings' health, including 17-year-old sister Zaynab who is seven months pregnant and "very sick".

"What about the children? What about the people that didn't want to come here? What about the people that are stuck here and never wanted to be here in the first place? They don't deserve this kind of treatment," she told The Sydney Morning Herald from the camp.

"We're Australians too. Australia needs to do something about it. They need to step up," she said in an interview published Friday.

The Sydney Morning Herald said there were five children in the family seeking help -- Hoda, Zaynab, their eight-year-old brother Hamzeh, and Zaynab's two young children -- Ayesha, 3, and Fatima, 2.

Sharrouf -- the first Australian to have his citizenship stripped under anti-terrorism laws -- left the country for Syria in 2013 with his wife Tara Nettleton, two daughters and three sons.

He made international headlines in 2014 when he posted an image on Twitter of another son holding a severed head.

He is believed to have died in a 2017 American air strike alongside his then pre-teen sons, while Nettleton reportedly died in 2015.

The fate of foreign fighters and their families has become a significant problem for governments as the conflict against IS draws to a close. Foreigners at the camp are from some 30 to 40 countries.

The Red Cross said Wednesday it wanted hundreds of children of foreign fighters living in the camp to be allowed to return home.

France last month took in five orphans and is dealing with returns on a case-by-case basis.