© SuppliedFatema, 2, the daughter of Mariam Dabboussy and granddaughter of activist Kamalle Dabboussy, in the snow at al-Hawl camp this week.
Police have raided homes in Sydney and Melbourne in an attempt to gather evidence against some of the 67 family members of Islamic State fighters living in a Syrian refugee camp.
The Australian Federal Police has stepped up investigations into the Australians trapped in the al-Hawl camp amid concerns some of them may try to flee and make their way home as conditions deteriorate in the camp.
The AFP raided properties in Melbourne on January 30, and in Sydney on February 5, which federal government sources confirmed were connected to its investigation into the wives of slain or imprisoned Australian Islamic State fighters.
The government insists it has no plans to rescue the Australians because the conditions in Syria are too dangerous and many of the women and families pose an ongoing security risk. But security agencies are preparing for the possibility that some or all of the 20 women and 47 children might find their way home.
This could involve paying people smugglers to get them out of northern Syria and to an Australian embassy, according to government sources. The government is also alive to the possibility of Kurdish authorities closing the camp if the security situation in northern Syria deteriorates even further in coming months. © Majid Abdulrahman Walika for Sesame Seed FilmsJarah and Layla, two of the children of an Australian mother living in the al-Hawl camp in Syria in November.
The situation is complicated by the varying security concerns posed by the women and families in the camp, with security agencies needing to assess every individual on a case-by-case basis. The government has already stripped the Australian citizenship of 17 dual nationals, including men and women, on the recommendation of the Citizenship Loss Board. © Mohammed Shaker for Sesame Seed FilmsA child at the fence at al-Hawl camp in Syria. The camp houses the wives and children of former Islamic State fighters.
A spokesman for the Australian Federal Police confirmed it had conducted operations in Melbourne and Sydney and said there was no current or impending threat to the community.
"As these matters relate to ongoing investigations, no additional information will be provided at this time," the AFP spokesman said.
A safe place?
Meanwhile in the camp, conditions are deteriorating with snow, freezing rain and the night-time temperature falling to minus eight degrees in recent weeks. The Kurdish authorities who control the region are also growing impatient as the security situation in north-eastern Syria becomes increasingly chaotic.
Kurdish authorities are making preparations to start from next month putting perhaps 1000 foreign fighters - including 10 Australians - on trial in Syria because western governments are refusing to take them home. © SuppliedA boy (unnamed) living in the al-Hawl camp in Syria who lost the tip of his finger in an accident.
Kurdish foreign relations chief Abdulkarim Omar said last week the foreigners, including women and children, were "a huge problem on the international level and we cannot solve it on our own". There was "an urgent need for a solution" to the issue and the autonomous region wanted "to pressure states to receive their nationals".
The Syrian Kurds are planning to send an unknown number of Iraqis over the border to be tried there in a legal system that was strongly criticised by a recent United Nations report. Meanwhile US troops were shot at on Wednesday night, and armies or militia from Russia, Turkey, Syria, the Kurdish region and Iran are all active and contesting territory in the country's north-east.
Some activists are pushing for an option of a safe place for the Australians somewhere in the Middle East to act as a "holding pattern" in the event of people escaping or being released from the camp and trying to make their way to Australia. The government has said it would deal with Australians if they could make it to any of the regional embassies, but there are no active plans underway to create a holding location.
Inside the camp
Conditions for the Australians inside the camp are dire as Syria endures a cold and wet winter. A photograph sent by one woman to her family shows a small child of the Australian group apparently suffering from frostbite.
Another had the tip of his finger chopped off in an accident.
"When I took him to the hospital they only gave me one paracetamol tablet and nothing else," said the boy's mother in a message to family in Australia. "I found from [other women] some gauze wraps and stuff to use, but it's finished now . Don't think so good of the world."
Videos and photographs obtained by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald show tents battered by heavy rain and undermined by floods, with children shivering in the snow.
According to Australian documentary filmmaker Giselle Hall, who has been a regular visitor to the camp in recent months, "many tents have flooded, torn and collapsed with the strong winds and heavy rain, often in the middle of the night.
"Aid agencies provide kerosene heaters, but distribution of kerosene is sometimes delayed by security concerns, leaving families without any way to heat their tents," Ms Hall said.
"Many of the women and children are afraid of the kerosene heaters, which have set tents alight, but feel they have no other choice but to use them in the freezing temperatures .
"Violence is rife and often carried out by the women living in the camp, with weapons such as kitchen knives and hammers. Guards have been attacked and killed. Men, women and children living in the camp have also been brutally murdered."
If they return
While there are no plans to extract any of the women and children in the camp, the Australian government has been making contingency plans in the event they take matters into their own hands. This includes building cases against women who security agencies believe could remain an ongoing threat. There are concerns within security agencies that many of the children have been radicalised after years in Syria. © Kate GeraghtyAustralian Maysa Assaad, 9, holding Shayma Assaadâ's daughter Mariam (2nd from left) in al Hawl camp.
Criminologist Clarke Jones, a senior research fellow at the Australian National University, is working with Muslim communities in Sydney and Melbourne to try to prepare the ground for any possible returns. He said it might be difficult for the police to prosecute the returning women because, for some, "it's a difficult proposition to say the women have broken the law".
"Some went under duress, some were tricked, some were children when they went - there are different stories, so ... trying to prove that they've been involved in violence, support of terrorism or militancy is going to be a really difficult one."
On the other hand, their reality has been trauma, abuse, including sexual abuse, and insecurity, "not to mention how unstable they would be around relationships - their husbands have been killed, then they have remarried two or three times".
Among the children, some might have been radicalised and, "the older they are the higher risk they would be," Dr Jones said. All the children, though, would need treatment for trauma, and strong social support, "being normalised as soon as possible, including going back to school".
Dr Jones says the government's engagement with the families in Australia had been non-existent.
"There's no one consulting the people on the cultural, religious aspects of bringing these people home," Dr Jones said. "That concerns me - the lack of consultation, the lack of communication with the people who they need to be in touch with."
Mat Tinkler, the Director of Policy and International Programs at Save The Children agreed there had been limited contingency planning, adding that, "if the government was serious about it they'd work with the families now to co-design deradicalisation and community reintegration programs".
Kamalle Dabboussy, the community advocate and father who has been working to have his daughter, Mariam, grandchildren and other Australians released from the camp, is increasingly frustrated at the government's approach.
"The women have all agreed to be subject to control orders if they return, and the government has not accepted that offer. Instead, all we've got is police raids. That, in my view, is a heavy-handed response.
"They're saying that if the women can get themselves and their children to an embassy then we'll help them," Dabboussy says. "They are saying we'll support them if they get out illegally, but we won't help them get out legally. To me, that is astounding."
Ingy Sedky, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, says the harsh weather conditions are adding more strains to the already vulnerable conditions of the people in the camp, exposing them to additional health risks.
She says the ICRC has a field hospital in the camp which has treated over 6600 wounded and sick people since opening in June last year, but the situation is "unsustainable and medical needs remain huge".
"Tents are sometimes damaged due to heavy rains. Food supply, blankets and mattresses are flooded," she says. "In some cases, two families are forced to squeeze under the same tent to escape the flooding."