British women and children detained in Syria failed by UK government, inquiry finds

There is “compelling evidence” that British women and children currently detained in camps in north-east Syria were trafficked to the country against their will, according to a new parliamentary report.

After a six-month inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on trafficked Britons in Syria, the report published on Thursday highlights how systemic failures by UK public bodies enabled Islamic State (IS) trafficking of vulnerable women and children as young as 12.

About 20 British families remain detained in north-east Syria in camps controlled mainly by Kurdish-dominated groups. Investigations by the NGO Reprieve suggest that most of the British women detained are victims of trafficking based on evidence that they were subjected to sexual and other forms of exploitation and were either transported to Syria as children, coerced into travelling to Syria, or kept and moved within Syria against their will.

“The government’s approach to British nationals detained in Syria is morally reprehensible, legally dubious and utterly negligent from a security perspective,” said Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, co-chair of the APPG. “It is also unsustainable, as recent IS attacks on Kurdish detention facilities have shown. The US has told us to bring British families home and our European allies have shown us how. Any ministers still clinging to the current failed policy would do well to read this report, which sets out the potentially catastrophic consequences of continued inaction.”

During its inquiry, the APPG received evidence from a range of experts, including legal and anti-trafficking experts, current and former government officials from the UK and its allies, former police and prosecutors, and global security advisers.

The APPG heard evidence of a “siloed approach to counter-terrorism and anti-trafficking by UK police and other authorities”. As a result, “key decision-makers failed to recognise signs of grooming and that vulnerable young girls were at risk of being lured out of the country by traffickers”. The report highlighted multiple missed opportunities to protect vulnerable women and children from being groomed by IS.

In one instance, UK authorities initially prevented a child from leaving the country with an adult who was not a relative. Despite being sufficiently concerned to prevent their travel, the authorities did not inform the family of the incident. The child left the UK by a different route the day after. The family of the child believe that had the authorities contacted them at the time, they may have been able to prevent her from being transported to Syria.

In another case, the police, school, health professionals and local authority were aware of evidence of domestic violence and knew that the girls in question had been taken out of school by their father unexpectedly. Yet investigations revealed that it was only a month after the girls had been taken to Syria that the local authority raised “safeguarding concerns” with the family’s GP and proceeded to complete a child missing education form.

The UK’s refusal to repatriate the British families exacerbates the risk of re-trafficking, by forcing women to consider other means of escaping the camps, such as placing their lives and their children’s lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers who may subject them to further exploitation.

Despite these risks, the report found the UK government has refused to provide essential consular assistance and made no effort to establish whether British women and children in north-east Syria detention camps were victims of trafficking. Instead, it has implemented a policy of blanket stripping of citizenship on the grounds that women travelled to Syria of their own volition, when in fact many of the women were groomed, coerced or deceived into travelling. The APPG “heard first-hand from the families of those now detained in Syria about the devastating and discriminatory effects of these policies on their own sense of security and belonging within the UK. Many family members of those detained in Syria report feeling like second-class citizens as a result of the government’s response”, the report said.

The APPG report concluded the UK government has failed to fulfil its obligations to identify, investigate, and protect potential victims of trafficking.

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.”