UK's refusal to repatriate British nationals from IS camps 'isolating' country from Western allies

A child at a camp in north-eastern Syria - Sam Tarling/Sam Tarling
A child at a camp in north-eastern Syria - Sam Tarling/Sam Tarling

The UK's refusal to repatriate British nationals from IS camps is “isolating” the country from its allies, a Conservative MP and rights groups have warned, with Britain now the sole Western outlier on the issue.

Nearly four years after the military defeat of IS, the prevailing view among Western governments is that women and children should be brought home from squalid camps holding IS suspects.

Canada last week became the latest country to signal a U-turn in its policy, after the government agreed to bring home seven Canadian women and 28 children from Syria.

A federal court has also ordered Ottawa to repatriate four men detained in northeast Syria on suspicion of links to Islamic State, including the British-born Jack Letts.

It is the first such order regarding male detainees in the Syrian camps, although Justin Trudeau’s government has not yet accepted and may yet appeal the ruling.

That means the UK is now the only major Western country still refusing to bring home British women and their children, a decision that comes at a cost, Conservative MP David Davis told The Telegraph.

Shamima Begum at a camp in Syria - Sam Tarling/Sam Tarling
Shamima Begum at a camp in Syria - Sam Tarling/Sam Tarling

“The Government’s myopia in refusing to repatriate British nationals from northeast Syria is isolating us from our closest international allies,” said Mr Davis, who is vice-chair of an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on trafficked Britons in Syria.

“The humanitarian and national security arguments in favour of repatriations are overwhelming. Britain should not have to be shamed by the example of its allies into taking the proper course and bringing our nationals back, including to face prosecutions if appropriate,” he said.

There are estimated to be around a dozen British women and their children in the camps - around 60 Britons in total, including men.

His APPG held an inquiry in 2021 that was told by leading experts –  including former MI6 counter-terrorism director Richard Barrett – that repatriating British nationals from Syria was in the public interest.

The British Government has said it will repatriate unaccompanied children from Syria, but argues that risks to security justify stripping citizenship from women like Shamima Begum, who is challenging the decision.

Shamima Begum at a camp in Syria
Shamima Begum at a camp in Syria

But Mr Davis said the policy damages the UK’s international standing and exposes the the country to greater security risks.

“As one of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, we should be leading and not hiding on this issue,” he said. “Sticking our heads in the sand and hoping the problem goes away is neither good politics nor a sound national security strategy.”

The UK is now an outlier among Western governments on repatriations, said Letta Taylor, associate director and counterterrorism lead at Human Rights Watch.

“Rather than bringing home citizens including children who themselves are victims of ISIS, it is collectively punishing them by abandoning them to squalid detention inside a war zone with no due process,” she told The Telegraph.

“The most durable solution to this crisis would be for the UK to bring home its citizens, provide rehabilitation services to those in need, and prosecute adults if they are suspected of serious crime.”

An FCDO spokesperson said: “Our priority is to ensure the safety and security of the UK and we will do whatever is necessary to protect the UK from those who pose a threat to our security. Every request for consular assistance from Syria is considered on a case by case basis.

When Kurdish-led Syrian forces recaptured the last territory held by IS in early 2019, the US-backed group was left holding tens of thousands of men, women and children who had been living under the extremist group.

Children at a camp in Syria - Sam Tarling/Sam Tarling
Children at a camp in Syria - Sam Tarling/Sam Tarling

Makeshift prisons run by Syrian Democratic Forces hold about 10,000 men, mostly Syrians and Iraqis, but including some 2,000 foreigners from 40 other states. Overcrowded detention camps at one point held 70,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis and some 12,000 foreigners, though many have now been repatriated.

Iraq has repatriated the highest number of citizens, according to figures provided by the Rojava Information Centre, an independent research group in northeast Syria, while some 2,500 women and children have been brought back to other countries. Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, France and Tajikistan lead repatriations, while most other Western countries have now taken significant steps toward bringing home women and children.

While few countries have rushed to repatriate their men, Germany, Italy, Bosnia and Morocco are known to have brought back some and the United States has taken high-profile British detainees Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh in addition to American citizens.

The Canadian BOLOH case – an acronym for “Bring Our Loved Ones Home” – is the first time a court has ordered the repatriation of adult men.

Canadian policy

Filed in 2021 on behalf of 26 Canadians detained in camps and prisons in northeast Syria, the lawsuit alleged that the Canadian government had breached its duties to its citizens by not helping them return home from Syria.

The judge agreed, ruling that the government had violated the prohibition against banishment under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Justice Brown accepted that they had travelled to Syria against Government advice, but noted that none had been charged or convicted of any crime

The right of every Canadian citizen to enter, remain in and leave Canada “is an expansive, generous and powerful right,” he wrote.

Until now the Canadian Government has only brought home seven women and children on a piecemeal basis, but while it mulls appealing the order to bring back its men, it has spoken to Canadian women in the camps about coming home. It has also asked foreign mothers who married Canadian men if they would give up their children to be brought to Canada alone, without their parents.

Global Affairs Canada did not provide comment when contacted by The Telegraph.