Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has warned some of the female extremists seeking to return to Australia are “as bad as the men” like notorious Khaled Sharrouf.
But as the government prepares to secure the passage of tough new laws to exclude Australian terrorists from returning for up to a year, the Department of Home Affairs has declined to say if a single foreign fighter has returned to Australia since 2016.
The Morrison government is also declining to say how many Australian children are in refugee camps in the Middle East, despite Save The Children’s estimation there are more than 40 after their parents fought with Islamic State.
“We haven’t given a breakdown of those numbers and we’re not going to,” Mr Dutton said.
“Some women have been drugged by their husbands in the Middle East in horrific circumstances and there are others who are willing participants and are an equal threat to Australians.
“In some cases children have been born in Syria. There are other cases we talk about children of a very young age … [we] have a lot of sympathy for trying to repatriate those children and bring them into our country, but we need to cognisant of the threat that the mother potentially provides … if she was to return.”
The government will only confirm 80 Australian men and women overseas have been identified as having fought with IS.
It’s not clear if that number includes Kurdish freedom fighters who battled against IS.
“I think threat level is different with some of the women and what [threat] they are posing,” Mr Dutton said.
“I want to be clear about this, the advice to me is some of these women are as bad as any of the men that we have seen.
“So let’s be realistic about that. Others … have been in violent relationships, have been sold or traded into some other relationship and horrific circumstances.”
Mr Dutton said Australia’s best estimate was that 230 people have left our shores to fight in the name of IS.
But the Department of Home Affairs declined to say if any foreign fighters have returned to Australia in the past three years, simply saying “the majority” had returned before 2016.
Asked if any had returned since then, a spokesperson said they had nothing further to add.
Mr Dutton said he had to ensure Australian kids were safe.
“I need to take into account those considerations. I also need to consider the rights of the five-year-old Australian child at a school here in Australia because we can’t just take somebody having been over in the Middle East and put them into Year 5 or Year 6,” Mr Dutton said.
“I don’t want cameras parked out the front, and scrutiny of people going to mosques.
“We want to work with – particularly in New South Wales and Victoria – the family services authorities in those states and put a bespoke arrangement [in place] for some individuals.”
Meanwhile, Labor Senator Kristina Keneally has accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of trying to “blow up” Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence and security by abandoning bipartisanship.
“It’s right that we have a scheme that manages the return of foreign fighters,” Senator Keneally told Sky News.
“The government seems intent here on blowing up the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, and setting a new course for managing national security legislation.”
Save the Children CEO Paul Ronalds said children must never be punished for the actions of their parents.
“In north-east Syria right now, there are more than 40 Australian children languishing in dangerous camps. All but two are under the age of 14,” Mr Ronalds said.
“The health, wellbeing and safety of children is always paramount. It must never be a trade-off for political point-scoring.”