SYDNEY - The Australian government has repatriated four Australian women and their 13 children from a Syrian refugee camp, Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil said on Saturday in a resumption of a controversial programme.
The repatriation to New South Wales state, criticised by the Liberal-National opposition, is part of bringing back from Syria dozens of Australian women and children who are relatives of dead or jailed fighters from the so-called Islamic State group.
Australia rescued eight children and grandchildren of two dead Islamic State fighters from a Syrian refugee camp in 2019 but has held off repatriating any others until now.
"The decision to repatriate these women and their children was informed by individual assessments following detailed work by national security agencies," O'Neil said in a statement.
The women and children left the al-Roj refugee camp in northern Syria on Thursday afternoon and crossed into Iraq to board a flight home, the Sydney Morning Herald and state broadcaster ABC reported on Friday.
The Labor-led government's focus has been on the safety and security of "all Australians" and those involved in the repatriation, O'Neil said, adding the government had "carefully considered the range of security, community and welfare factors in making the decision to repatriate".
The repatriation followed similar moves by the United States, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain and Canada, O'Neil said.
She said allegations of illegal activity would continue to be investigated by state and federal law enforcement authorities. Local media previously reported some women may be charged with terrorism offences or for entering Syria illegally.
"Any identified offences may lead to law enforcement action being taken," O'Neil said, adding that New South Wales was providing "extensive support services" to help the group reintegrate into Australia.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has labelled the move as not in the country's best interest, saying the women have mixed with "people who hate our country, hate our way of life."
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters he would not discuss details of the group's case but said he was following national security advice.
"The Australian government will always work to ensure that people are kept safe here in Australia, that is our priority," he said, according to an official transcript of his remarks in Griffith, in regional New South Wales.
(Reporting by Sam McKeith; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and William Mallard)