The Australian government on Thursday declared Syria’s Raqqa province -- the de facto capital of the Islamic State group’s self-proclaimed caliphate -- as a no-go zone for its citizens, making it a criminal offense to enter the region without a legitimate purpose. This is the first such declaration made by the government under a raft of new, stricter counterterrorism laws passed by Australia's parliament in October.
“Declaring Al-Raqqa province under the Criminal Code sends a strong message to those Australians who seek to participate in the Syrian conflict,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said, in a statement released Thursday. She also urged Australian nationals currently residing in Raqqa province without a legitimate purpose to “leave immediately."
“The ISIL terrorist organization is engaging in significant hostile activities in Al-Raqqa, including the murder of opponents, the rape and enslavement of women, and the intimidation and subjugation of the civilian population,” Bishop said, adding that she is considering including more areas where the Islamic state group is active to its no-go zone list.
However, the new law has reportedly been criticized by several Australian politicians as “draconian” and “unnecessary.”
“Anyone who travels to the Al-Raqqa province, even under the listed exemptions, will have a very real legal challenge of proving that they went there for one sole purpose,” Penny Wright, a senator from the Australian Greens party, said, according to The Australian. “It criminalizes perfectly legitimate travel and has the same effect as reversing the onus of proof.”
The move is the latest in a series of measures implemented by the Australian government to curb the flow of foreign fighters, which reportedly includes nearly 70 Australian nationals, to conflict-ridden regions in Syria and Iraq.
The country has also been on high alert following the release of videos by militants of the Islamic State group, urging Australian jihadists to attack locals. In September, law enforcement agencies had conducted the largest anti-terror raids in the country’s history and arrested 15 people suspected of plotting attacks in the nation's cities.