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10 February 2022

Trafficked women and children “abandoned” in Syria, finds cross-party inquiry

British nationals currently detained in camps include “victims and desperate women who were coerced, manipulated, or criminally forced to travel” to Iraq and Syria.

By Ben van der Merwe

The British government is guilty of a “systematic failure to combat IS [Islamic State] trafficking operations” and of “abandoning” trafficked Britons, including children, to indefinite detention in Syria, according to a cross-party parliamentary report released today (10 February).

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria (APPG) heard evidence that UK public bodies failed to properly identify Britons at risk of trafficking, failed to notify the parents and guardians of young girls who were being groomed, and failed to prevent those at risk of being trafficked from travelling to warzones.

The six-month inquiry also heard evidence that the Home Office had deprived Britons of their citizenship on a “blanket basis” without consideration of whether they had been “groomed, coerced or deceived into travelling to Syria”.

The Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, co-chairman of the APPG, told the New Statesman: “Some of these women were trafficked underage, or were trafficked for sex. In any other walk of life we wouldn’t be vilifying them – we would be arguing that they were victims of modern slavery and that we have a duty of care towards them.”

Richard Barrett, a former MI6 counterterror chief, told the APPG that the British nationals currently detained in the al-Hawl and al-Roj detention camps in north-east Syria included “victims and desperate women who were coerced, manipulated, or criminally forced to travel” to Iraq and Syria.

An April 2021 report by the legal charity Reprieve found that 84 per cent of British nationals detained in north-east Syria were women and children, with at least 63 per cent of detained women likely to be victims of human trafficking. British courts have described conditions in the camps as “cruel, inhumane and degrading”.

The APPG’s inquiry found that the UK government had provided £15m specifically to support child detention camps in north-east Syria. The report argues that such detentions are unlawful, and that “detained children are at risk of death, separation from their parents, being made effectively stateless, and being trafficked or re-trafficked by ISIS or similar groups”.

Evidence was also found that the British government “appears to be pursuing a policy of encouraging the separation of British children from their mothers, only months after telling Parliament that to do so would be ‘wrong in principle’ “.

A government spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure the safety and security of the UK. Those who remain in the conflict zone include some of the most dangerous individuals, choosing to stay to fight or otherwise support Daesh. Daesh still remains our most significant terrorist threat at home and abroad.

“The situation in North East Syria is clearly very complex with significant humanitarian and security concerns. We continue to work with international partners to support camps in Syria, funding the provision of life-saving supplies including food, water, healthcare and shelter.”

Trafficking victims “abandoned”

The APPG found that the Home Office has stripped citizenship from at least 19 British nationals detained in north-east Syria, though it notes the true number is likely to be higher due to a lack of transparent data and the government’s failure to inform some UK nationals of the removal of their citizenship.

Since 2014 at least 154 British nationals have been deprived of their citizenship on the grounds that doing so would be “conducive to the public good”. The APPG has called on the government to suspend the use of this power, rather than extending it as planned through the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill.

Clause nine of the bill, which is currently being scrutinised by parliament, would allow the Home Secretary to strip British nationals of their citizenship without informing them. The New Statesman has estimated that the legislation would affect the rights of six million people in England and Wales, including half of all British Asians.

[See also: What does the Nationality and Borders Bill mean for you?]

Sayeeda Warsi, the former chair of the Conservative Party and vice-chair of the APPG, told the New Statesman: “Families reeling from the disappearance of daughters and sisters victimised by Daesh [IS] have been treated like criminals and then ignored.

“The government has used its powers to deprive citizenship almost exclusively against Muslims, and is now seeking to extend these draconian powers, signalling to Britons from minority communities that their rights can easily be taken away.”

The US State Department representative, John Godfrey, told the APPG that the practice of removing citizenship from Britons that travelled to Syria “puts the burden on local partners and the international community, which has neither the mandate nor the tools needed to successfully resolve such cases”.

Mirza Shahzad Akbar, an adviser to the prime minister of Pakistan, described the practice as “dumping the developed world’s problems on another place”, while the former UK director of public prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, said it is “demeaning to the British state to be washing its hands of its own citizens”.

Tens of thousands of suspected IS members are thought to be held in makeshift detention camps across north-east Syria, a situation that the Kurdish authorities in charge of the camps described to the APPG as a “ticking time bomb that could explode at any time”.

Two current and former US State Department counterterror officials told the inquiry that IS was making “significant” attempts to take control of the camps.

The APPG report notes: “Should the detention facilities collapse, the impact on national and global security could be extremely serious.”

An IS attack on one facility last month is thought to have set hundreds of prisoners free. A senior Kurdish commander involved in countering the attack told ANF News: “The most important thing is that foreign nationals are returned to their countries as soon as possible… Our resources are very limited.”

[See also: “Leaving every night”: Kurds still determined to reach UK after Channel tragedy]

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