The Home Office has been accused of “alarming inaction” after making no apparent attempt to bring back any British children from Syria for the past eight months despite pledges of help from ministers.
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, announced last October that “unaccompanied minors or orphans” in Syria could be returned to Britain. After three orphans returned in November, he hailed the move as “the right thing to do”. He added: “These innocent, orphaned children should never have been subjected to the horrors of war.”
Boris Johnson described the children’s repatriation as “a great success”.
But an estimated 60 or so British minors are still trapped in north-east Syria, and the government has repeatedly refused to say when any of them will be allowed to return home.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, has so far not responded to a letter from Save the Children, sent last December, in which the charity asked how she intended to start bringing them home. Since then, the charity has repeatedly asked Home Office officials for a progress report on its attempts to repatriate unaccompanied children and orphans stranded in refugee camps but says it has been stonewalled.
The latest accusations follow Thursday’s ruling that Shamima Begum, currently in north-east Syria after leaving London at 15 to marry an Islamic State fighter, should be allowed home. The Court of Appeal said the 20-year-old, one of three east London girls who went to Syria in 2015, could only properly appeal against the government’s decision to revoke her citizenship if she came back to the UK. However, there is growing concern that the government will do nothing to assist her return.
Yesterday her family said that any attempt by the UK government to keep Begum in Syria would be defeated. Tasnime Akunjee, the family’s lawyer, said: “However determined this particular government is in keeping Shamima Begum out, I can assure them that the family are more determined to bring her to safety”.
Akunjee felt that the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who control the camp where Begum is being held, would be willing to help assist with her repatriation because of the court’s judgment.
“If we have a court ruling saying that the British government must accept her but they are not moving on it, then it’ll be up to us to convince the SDF that that’s good enough,” said Akunjee. Orlaith Minogue, conflict and humanitarian advocacy adviser for Save the Children, said she was “extremely frustrated” over the British government’s refusal to help the plight of the British children.
“We’ve repeatedly tried to engage the Home Office and Foreign Office on a progress report about what is happening and the state of the children’s safety, but we have received no further information or what steps have been taken. We are concerned at the alarming inaction,” she said.
Other European countries, however, have made recent efforts to repatriate vulnerable citizens.
Last month, the French government brought home 10 French children of suspected Isis fighters from north-east Syria.
Since Isis was ousted in March 2019, France has repatriated a total of 28 children from Syria. By contrast, the UK has brought back three orphans, and only then under significant political and public pressure.
Minogue said: “When we had those statements from Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab [last year] they were under a lot of political pressure but since then we’ve heard nothing”.
Meanwhile, the legal charity Reprieve reiterated calls for British mothers to be returned along with the children. There are currently more than 20 British families believed to be held in refugee camps in north-east Syria.
“Children deserve to be given support to rebuild their lives in the UK and any charges that the adults face should be handled by the British justice system in British courts,” said Reprieve director Maya Foe.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK does more to support unaccompanied children than any EU member state”.
They added that coronavirus had suspended all refugee resettlement activity, but would restart “as soon as possible once conditions allow”.
Individuals linked to Isis who have been repatriated from Syria
More than 600 of its citizens have been repatriated from Syria, of which over 400 are children and at least 150 are women.
At least 148 Uzbek women and children linked to Islamic State have been returned from north-east Syria.
At least 74 children and 32 women have been returned from Syria.
The country has repatriated at least 35 orphans from Syria.
Has so far helped 28 children get home from Syria.
United States: 23
The US has returned at least 23 people, including 15 children.
To date has repatriated three orphans from Syria.