Australian women and children have been snatched from the al-Hawl refugee camp in north-east Syria, where families of Islamic State fighters are detained, according to reports from inside the camp.
Their location and the identities of the men who took them are still not known.
Kamalle Dabboussy, whose daughter and grandchildren are in the camp, but were not taken, told the ABC the Australian women and children had been taken by unidentified men in the middle of the night, and none had yet made contact with their relatives.
“There was a lot of screaming and shouting,” he heard from others in the camp. “Kids were crying … It was very traumatic the way they were taken. They were apparently handcuffed.”
The deputy chief executive of Save the Children, Mat Tinkler, said he was deeply concerned about the welfare of the Australians.
“It’s hard to imagine more vulnerable children than these Aussie kids, who have endured another brutal summer in north-east Syria living in a camp without running water or adequate health services, and where people live in flimsy tents at the mercy of the elements,” he said.
The Australians in al-Hawl camp are family members of former foreign fighters who have been captured or killed. None of the women in the camp have been charged as being combatants, though arrest warrants have been issued for some, and many were coerced, forced or tricked into travelling to Syria.
Before Saturday night, there were 19 Australian women and 47 Australian children in the camp, and the youngest child is one-year-old. The government is aware of their identities and the bona fides of their citizenship or right to claim that citizenship.
Conditions in the camp are poor and in February a three-year-old Australian girl contracted severe frostbite on her left hand during the winter.
On Tuesday, Dabboussy urged the Australian government to take up the offers made by the US, the Red Cross and the UN to help it repatriate its citizens from the camp.
Tinkler said the government should “do everything possible” to ensure their safety.
“Australia has had numerous opportunities and offers of assistance to bring these Aussie kids and their mothers home from one of the most dangerous places on Earth,” he said. “The government must do everything possible to ensure the safety of these Australian children and women, and those remaining in al-Hawl.”
Women in the camp have previously said they would agree to monitoring, such as control orders, if they returned to Australia.
Were the children and their mothers able to get to an Australian embassy or consulate, the Australian government would be legally obliged to provide them travel documents to return home.
But the Canberra has consistently refused to repatriate its citizens, despite the urgings of the US and Kurdish forces running the camp, and other countries such as the UK, Germany, Denmark and France repatriating their citizens.
A small group of Australian orphans has been repatriated home, but no family members with adults have been brought back since the Australians were taken to the camp a year ago.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has said the government is not prepared to risk other Australian lives in any repatriation effort. He said some of the Australians in the camp were “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.
“So I don’t think it should come as a surprise when we say we’re not going to send our soldiers to rescue people of this nature.”
Sources in the camp say repatriating foreign nationals remains relatively straightforward. Kurdish forces have been taking foreign citizens across the nearby Iraqi border, without the involvement of third country troops or diplomatic staff.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Home Affairs have been contacted for comment.