Report condemns UK over British women and children held in Syria

Owen Bowcott and Dan Sabbagh
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

British women and children captured after the collapse of Islamic State in Syria are being held in “barbaric” conditions and deprived in a “systematic way” of their UK citizenship, according to a report on their conditions.

As many as 35 British children and 15 British women are being detained by Kurdish forces in two camps, al-Hol and al-Roj, along with thousands of children and women from Syria and around the world. It is Europe’s equivalent of the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, the report says.

The investigation by the London-based Rights and Security International charity says British intelligence officials regularly enter the camps. Once individuals are identified, it is alleged, their UK citizenship is usually swiftly withdrawn.

The report was published the day after the lawyers for Shamima Begum appealed to the supreme court for an opportunity for her to participate in a legal challenge over the removal of her British citizenship.

Conditions inside the camps, according to the study, are “fundamentally unsafe” and amount to “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” – a breach of human rights. The organisation sent a researcher into the camps earlier this year.

On average, 25 detainees a month have been dying at al-Hol, it is alleged, with children living in tents and suffering from malnutrition, dehydration and hypothermia. Some have died from burns when tents caught fire, or have been killed in fights.

Guards are said to have shot detainees, sexually abused others and are ordered to forcibly remove boys from their mothers when the children reach the age of 10.

“The camps in which they are being held are fundamentally unsafe environments in which physical violence is common, the conditions are barbaric, and psychological trauma is rife,” the report states.

It adds that women are placed in solitary confinement for months for alleged involvement in unrest or for possessing mobile phones. Last year, a child was reported to have been shot and killed when a stone he was playing with hit a camp guard.

The study urges European countries to fulfil their “legal, political and moral responsibilities and immediately repatriate their citizens”.

Documents, which have been released as part of the Begum case, show that the UK regards British women in the camps who travelled to Syria as a national security risk and does not want them to return home. According to a summary of the case against Begum, 21, the Home Office believes “there are no substantial grounds” to think she faced “a real risk of mistreatment” during her detention in Syria.

The two camps are run by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Europe’s ally against Isis in north-east Syria. A few detainees are said to have been repatriated, including some “British children … in November 2019 and in September 2020”.

Yasmine Ahmed, the executive director of Rights and Security International, said: “This is Europe’s Guantánamo, but for children. It beggars belief that the UK, who rightly condemned the abuses of Guantánamo Bay, now stand by and let children, including a newborn British baby, die. Now these women and children face another brutal winter with more deaths.

“The claim that it is safer to leave women and children in the camps flies in the face of security experts who say that the real security risk comes from leaving these women and children in the detention camps where they are vulnerable to radicalisation, and where their dire conditions can serve as a recruitment tool.

“Have we learned nothing from the last 20 years on the war on terror? When we place people outside the law, when we deny them rights, treat them with brutality and without humanity, we not only undermine the values we are fighting for but we make ourselves and the world less safe, not more.” The UK government, she said, was using removal of citizenship “in a far more systematic way” than other European countries.

Richard Barrett, a former MI6 director of global counter-terrorism, was interviewed for the report. He said: “The longer they stay without proper assessment of their mental and physical health or their attitudes towards their families, communities and countries – the more unpredictable they will become. And the more difficult it will be to determine what they’re going to do.”

The Home Office has been asked for comment.