Eight Australian children caught up in the Syrian war after their parents joined Islamic State have been spirited out of the country.
The group includes five family members of Khaled Sharrouf, an Australian terrorist who made international headlines in a photograph standing next to his young son holding a severed human head.
The remaining three are the children of the foreign fighter Yasin Rizvic and his wife, Fauzia Khamal Bacha, who joined Isis in 2014.
It is the first instance of Australian children of foreign fighters being rescued from the northern Syrian camps.
The eight children crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan at 3:30pm local time on Sunday into the care of Australian officials, and the Guardian has been asked not to disclose further geographical information for security reasons.
Sharrouf’s 17-year-old daughter, Zaynab, is heavily pregnant and has had health problems. Also repatriated were Zaynab’s two children, her younger teenage sister Hoda and their brother Hamzeh – who is under 10. They have been reunited with their maternal grandmother, Karen Nettleton.
All eight children are headed for Australia, but the Sharrouf children’s return will be delayed because of the impending birth of Zaynab’s baby.
The Guardian was told all eight had undergone security assessments and checks, and that appropriate support structures, including psychological care, would be in place for them when they got home.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison said the decision to repatriate the children was not made “lightly”.
“As I have said repeatedly, my government would not allow any Australian to be put at risk,” he said.
“The fact that parents put their children into harm’s way by taking them into a war zone was a despicable act.
“However, children should not be punished for the crimes of their parents.”
Sharrouf and his wife, Tara Nettleton, took their five children to Syria in 2014. Nettleton died from illness the following year and Sharrouf is believed to have died in 2017 alongside his eight- and nine-year-old sons in a US air strike.
Rizvic, who was from Melbourne, was killed in 2016, and Bacha and her youngest son died in separate incidents later, the ABC reported in May. The three remaining children are all under 12.
The families have been stuck in the northern Syrian al-Hawl camp alongside thousands of other foreigners, held in detention after Isis lost the last of its territory.
Plans for their repatriation have changed frequently in recent weeks due to variable conditions. The Guardian has been asked not to detail previous plans for security reasons.
Prior to the children’s exit, Australian diplomats, including John Philps from the embassy in Baghdad, met with Kurdish officials in north-eastern Syria on Saturday.
The Sharrouf children’s case was discussed, and Philps also sought an international response to the 8,000 women and children and 1,000 foreign fighters in the camps.
Mari Mortvedt, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria, had just returned from the camp, and told the Guardian it was “hot, dry and challenging”.
“Many are injured and there’s a vast majority of children,” Mortvedt said.
“The ICRC remains very concerned about the circumstances of tens of thousands of women and children still living in dire conditions in al-Hawl and other camps in the region.
War has robbed the children living in these camps of their childhood. Some children don’t even have a nationality. We must treat these children – some of whom have no parents – as young people in need.”
“We welcome steps that could give young people a chance to begin rebuilding their lives.”
This month about 800 people – mainly women and children who were family members of Isis fighters – were released from the camp, the ABC reported.
Kurdish officials have said they will work with foreign governments to facilitate the return of their citizens, but many have been reticent – especially about taking adult parents – as a result of security concerns and political complications.
Human rights groups including Save the Children have repeatedly called on the Australian government to bring the children home.
“No one is defending the actions of their parents, who must face justice,” the group said in April. “But we must defend the rights of every child. Australia has the power to repatriate these children and support their recovery; their reintegration into our society.”
Last week Australia’s home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, told ABC’s Insiders the government needed to “provide protection for Australian citizens, in particularly, infants or children”, but also had to be mindful of the complications of cases and the security of Australia.
“If we’re bringing teenagers back, for example, who may have been listening to the propaganda, rhetoric, having watched horrific circumstances, bodies being mutilated, whatever it may be, over a long period of time, what threat those individuals may pose to our country if they’re returned,” Dutton said.
He said the government was working with the ICRC, as well as the UK, the US and other partners, and was looking at how to support someone if they did return in terms of family services, education and deradicalisation.
“Popping kids back into school, pretending nothing’s happened, is just not a reality,” he said. “They’re complex cases. We’ll look at them compassionately but realistically and they are very, very dynamic cases.”
Morrison said he would not put any Australian lives at risk to get the children out, but “we will do what I think Australians would expect us to do on their behalf”.
Morrison previously suggested that Australia would not assist the family unless they made their own way to an embassy or consulate – an idea that was dismissed by human rights groups as largely impossible from the camp.
Karen Nettleton travelled to Syria several times over five years trying to find her grandchildren, before locating them at the al-Hawl camp this year.
The reunion was filmed by ABC’s Four Corners but Nettleton was unable to bring the children home with her. The program reported that Australian officials had told her the children would be released but she had to be patient.
“I just want it on the record that I’m really frustrated about how long it is taking to get my kids,” she said at the time.
“I’m leaving Syria. I didn’t think I’d be crossing over without the children, but I am, and I will be waiting for them on the other side.”