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UK ‘colluding in torture’ by leaving women and children in Syria camps

Rights watchdog accuses Britain of turning a blind eye to degrading treatment of those who lived under IS

Children walking among shelters at al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria
Children walking among shelters at al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected IS fighters, in north-eastern Syria. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
Children walking among shelters at al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected IS fighters, in north-eastern Syria. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
Defence and security editor

Last modified on Thu 14 Oct 2021 15.56 BST

Britain is colluding in torture and degrading treatment by refusing to repatriate women and children held in indefinite detention in Syrian prison camps, according to a report from a human rights watchdog.

The assessment (pdf) by Rights and Security International (RSI) accuses the UK and others of turning a blind eye to lawless and squalid conditions in two camps that contain 60,000 women and children, many held since the collapse of Islamic State.

An estimated 15 to 20 individuals and families who originally came from Britain are among those detained in north-east Syria, including Shamima Begum and others whose citizenship has been removed.

“By refusing to bring these children and women back to the UK when it could do so, the British government is abandoning people – including its own citizens – to torture and death,” said Sarah St Vincent, RSI’s executive director.

“This refusal blatantly ignores fundamental human rights that the British government promotes on the international stage, and treats these Muslim women and children as less than human.”

Most of the women and children lived under IS until it lost the last of its territory after the fall of Baghouz in 2019, and were captured by Syrian Kurdish fighters, ground troops in the US-led coalition against the terror group.

Britain continues to argue the women pose a national security threat and has, in the case of Begum and others, removed their UK citizenship. Any adult Briton allowed back would probably face terror charges, although it is unclear what evidence prosecutors have.

Last week Nicole Jack, 34, a mother detained in al-Roj camp, argued in a BBC interview that she was not security risk and politicians should “open your minds” to allowing them to return. Do not sweep us “under the carpet”, she added.

Syrian Kurdish leaders also want the UK and others to repatriate the 12,000 women from outside Syria and Iraq who are in the camps, as they grapple with the reconstruction of the north-east of the country, outside the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.

Îlhan Ehmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, the Syrian Kurds’ leading political body, also called on the UK to “give us support, rehabilitate everyone and take them back to their homeland” during a visit to Britain last week.

Two children have died every week in the larger al-Hawl camp this year, according to Save the Children, while those being detained experience “hunger, thirst, poor sanitation and inadequate shelter”, the RSI report said.

Older children have been forcibly separated from their parents, while “the threat of violence or exploitation is also ever-present” for many of those inside – for whom, the report said, “there is no end in sight”.

“In combination, the conditions and risks faced by these children and women in both al-Hawl and Roj camps amount to torture,” the human rights group concluded.

The Home Office has indicated in some cases it would allow children to return home if their mother was willing to give them up to other family members. But the idea of family separations is controversial and none are thought to have taken place.

Other countries have begun to gradually repatriate women and children. Last week, Germany said it had flown home eight women and 23 children in a joint operation with Denmark, which brought back three women and 14 children.

Maya Foa, the director of the human rights campaign group Reprieve, said: “The UK is starting to look more like an outlier because it simply doesn’t have a policy. The idea that Britain is incapable of dealing with 15 to 20 families who have lived under Islamic State would be laughable if it were not so tragic.”

The Foreign Office said it encouraged camp authorities to ensure conditions met international standards. “It is important that we do not make judgments about the national security risk someone poses based on their gender or age alone, but the threat that they pose based on their actions and the role that they have played in supporting Daesh,” they said.