A Kurdish security forces member patrols the al-Hol camp in Syria where the families of IS fighters are held
A Kurdish security forces member patrols the Al-Hol camp in Syria where families of IS fighters are held. AFP

The Australian government was under no legal obligation to bring back its citizens from detention camps in Syria, the federal court ruled Tuesday.

Dismissing the appeal by Save the Children, the court said if the government had the political will, repatriation of ISIS brides and their children from Syria could be a "relatively straightforward exercise."

The court, however, added that the government's ability to repatriate citizens does not mean having control over their detention.

About 40 Australians -- 10 women and 30 children -- lodged in detention camps in North Syria, were wives, widows and children of slain or jailed Islamic State fighters, The Guardian reported.

A Red Cross report said some children were born in the camps, and did not know of a life outside. The women and children have been living in volatile conditions in detention camps near Turkish and Iraqi borders for four years now. None of them have been charged with any crimes or face arrest warrants.

The court said Australia had repatriated citizens in the past with the help of Kurdish authorities that control north-east Syria, but that does not translate as having control over them in the detention camps.

"If the commonwealth has the political will to bring the ... women and children back to Australia, on the evidence before the court, it would be a relatively straightforward exercise."

The justices said it was "amply proven" that the commonwealth had the "means" to end the detention of the Australian women and children. "But that is distinct from a finding that the commonwealth exercises control over them and their custody," the court stated.

On two occasions, Australia has repatriated its citizens from the Syrian camps. In 2019, eight orphaned children, including a pregnant teenager, and in 2022, four women and 13 children were brought back home.

Save the Children had insisted on the government's "legal and moral obligation" to act. But, the government pointed out since the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) held "complete and unfettered discretion" over the detainees, it couldn't be compelled to repatriate them, The Australian reported.

In November 2023, the court had refused to issue a writ of habeas corpus to bring back the citizens from Syria.

Save the Children Australia had appealed as litigation guardian for 11 children and six women. Chief executive Mat Tinkler said the fight was not over and that the organization remained committed to bringing back the "Australian children and their mothers trapped in the desert camps."