New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday that her government will take custody of a 26-year-old woman with two children who joined the Islamic State in Syria in 2014 and was detained in 2021 when attempting to enter Turkey.
The woman also has citizenship in Australia and lived there most of her life, but Australia revoked her citizenship and refused to take her back.
“New Zealand has not taken this step lightly. We have taken into account our international responsibilities as well as the details of this particular case, including the fact that children are involved,” Ardern said on Monday.
The woman currently held in Turkey was identified by Australia’s ABC in February as Suhayra Aden. Most international news reports only refer to her by her initials “S.A.”
Aden was born in New Zealand, but her family moved to Australia when she was six years old. She left Australia in 2014 to join the Islamic State and bore three children for two Swedish ISIS fighters, both of whom were killed. One of her children also died of pneumonia while she was living in the Syrian “caliphate” established by the Islamic State.
Aden and her surviving children wound up living in Idlib, one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria. She tried to cross into Turkey from Idlib with her surviving children in February but was arrested by Turkish border police.
The Turkish Defense Ministry described Aden as a “terrorist from Daesh,” using another name for the Islamic State. She was wanted for questioning by Interpol under a “blue notice,” which means the international police force believed she had meaningful information about persons of interest in their criminal investigations. Aden’s defenders portrayed her as a “jihad bride” or “concubine,” recruited for breeding purposes by the Islamic State, rather than being a dangerous terrorist herself.
Aden was stripped of her Australian citizenship automatically under a December 2015 law that revoked citizen status for individuals over age 14 who joined terrorist organizations as fighters or engaged in “disallegient” conduct on their behalf, provided the individual would not become completely “stateless” as a result. Since Aden had citizenship in both Australia and New Zealand, she met the criteria.
The Australian government amended the “automatic” citizenship revocation law in late 2020 to allow ministerial review of individual cases, but Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stood by the revocation of Aden’s citizenship, saying it “happens automatically and that has been a known part of Australia’s law for some time.”
“My job is Australia’s interests. That’s my job. It’s my job as the Australian Prime Minister to put Australia’s national security interests first and I think all Australians would agree with that,” Morrison said in February.
“Australia’s interest here is that we do not want to see terrorists who fought with terrorist organizations enjoying privileges of citizenship, which I think they forfeit the second they engage as an enemy of our country and I think Australians would agree with that,” Morrison said.
The situation blossomed into a heated dispute between Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who accused Morrison’s government of abandoning its responsibilities to the former ISIS member and potentially leaving her children in stateless limbo.
“The fair question to ask is whether she should return to New Zealand or Australia. We firmly believe the answer is Australia, and have repeatedly communicated that view to the Australian Government at the highest levels,” Ardern said.
It is wrong that New Zealand should shoulder the responsibility for a situation involving a woman, who has not lived in New Zealand since she was six, has resided in Australia since that time, has her family in Australia and left for Syria from Australia on her Australian passport.
Ardern argued that the repatriated women and her children had no immediate family in New Zealand, so it would not be “in the family’s best interests” to relocate there, while “Australia would be more suitable.”
“The welfare of the children also needs to be at the forefront in this situation. These children were born in a conflict zone through no fault of their own,” she said.
“New Zealand, frankly, is tired of having Australia exporting its problems,” Ardern said. “If the shoe were on the other foot we would take responsibility, that would be the right thing to do and I ask Australia to do the same.”
On Monday, Ardern said she has accepted a request from Turkey to take custody of Aden and her children. Details of the arrangement were not made public for security reasons.
“They are not Turkey’s responsibility, and with Australia refusing to accept the family, that makes them ours,” she said.
“It has previously been made clear that any New Zealander who might be suspected of association with a terrorist group should expect to be investigated under New Zealand law, but that would be a matter for the Police,” Ardern said, hinting that the repatriated Aden could spend some time in police custody or under surveillance.
Ardern said “the safety considerations of New Zealanders” were her administration’s highest priority, promising “we have used all of the tools available to us to ensure the safety of New Zealanders on this return.”
“All I can give you is an assurance that a lot of work has been done across many agencies to ensure a safety plan is in place. Unfortunately, I do have some constraints over what I am able to talk about for legal reasons,” she said.
Ardern took a few parting shots at Morrison in her press conference, declaring “New Zealand does not arbitrarily cancel citizenship and leave people stateless.”
We have been given an assurance from Australia that we will not have another situation where a dual citizen of Australia-New Zealand will be arbitrarily cancelled in this way again, so we have made progress there. And equally, we have made some progress on the way that the children in this case will be treated.
“These children have had an incredibly hard start to life and have been living in conditions unimaginable to most New Zealanders,” said New Zealand Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft.
“They have the right to a full, free life, including a safe home and an education, as much as any other Australian or New Zealand child does. I believe it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure they do,” Becroft said, urging reporters to respect the privacy of Aden and her family.
Suhayra Aden’s lawyer Deborah Manning said on Monday her client is “looking forward to being in New Zealand and giving her children an opportunity at living here and integrating, and really wishes to have privacy for them to allow them to settle in here and come to terms with everything they have been through.”