In July 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Trafficked Britons in Syria launched an inquiry concerning the trafficking of British nationals by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many of these people are now detained in North East Syria (NES) by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and Syrian Democratic Forces. The inquiry received oral and written evidence from current and former government officials from the UK and its allies, former police and prosecutors, legal and anti-trafficking experts, and global security advisers, including a former director of global counter-terrorism at the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).
The APPG received compelling evidence that British nationals, including children, were trafficked by ISIS to and within Syria and Iraq. The APPG is extremely troubled by evidence indicating that, of British nationals currently detained in NES who were not born there, almost half were children at the time of travel3 and therefore especially likely to be victims of trafficking.
The APPG heard strong evidence that the UK Government neglected to take adequate action to prevent this trafficking. The inquiry heard that UK public bodies failed to identify at-risk individuals who were particularly vulnerable to trafficking, failed to notify parents and guardians of young girls who were being groomed, and failed to prevent women and girls from leaving the country, despite many being underage or known to be at risk. These were not isolated incidents; rather this was a systemic failure to combat ISIS trafficking operations.
Key decision-makers failed to recognise that vulnerable young girls were being groomed due to a siloed approach to counter-terrorism and anti-trafficking by UK police and other authorities. Family members of those detained in NES reported feeling that the police and government treated them as criminals, rather than relatives of missing persons. As a result, police damaged their relationship with the community they serve and missed opportunities to prevent trafficking of young Britons to Syria.
The UK Government has now abandoned its nationals – including those whose trafficking they failed to prevent – in indefinite and unlawful detention in NES. Conditions in the detention camps are dire, with UK courts accepting that they constitute cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Many of the British detainees have been held for more than three years without charge or trial.
The inquiry heard distressing evidence of serious violations of children’s rights, including of British boys and girls. Detained children are at risk of death, separation from their parents, being made effectively stateless, and being trafficked or re-trafficked by ISIS or similar groups.
In 2021, at least 163 people died in al Hol Camp, 62 of whom were children,4 and reports suggest that two children die in al Hol and Roj camps each week from preventable illnesses.5 The APPG is particularly concerned by evidence that the UK Government is financially contributing to the unlawful detention of children in NES.6
Rather than honour its international obligations to investigate cases of British nationals who may be victims of trafficking and provide protection and support, the Government’s policy has been to punish potential victims, including by refusing to investigate the circumstances of their trafficking, refusing to repatriate them, and stripping them of citizenship on what appears to be a blanket basis.
In light of the evidence received, the APPG recommends that the UK Government undertake the following steps:
Repatriate British nationals back to the UK
The APPG concludes that the UK Government must take urgent steps to repatriate all British men, women, and children detained in NES. This is necessary to implement the APPG’s other recommendations, including to: investigate trafficking and support victims, protect British children from serious harm, reduce risks to national security, prevent re-trafficking, prevent a potential resurgence of ISIS, and ensure justice and accountability for crimes committed by ISIS. It has also been shown to be practically feasible and is strongly encouraged by the UK’s closest security allies.
Investigate trafficking and provide support to victims
Under international and domestic law, the UK Government is obliged to take necessary and reasonable steps to identify, assist, and protect British victims of trafficking by ISIS. The APPG concludes that the UK Government must reverse its unlawful position that it has no obligations towards British victims of trafficking who are outside the UK. Instead, it must take necessary and reasonable steps to investigate and to identify all British nationals who are potential victims of trafficking by ISIS. The APPG also recommends that the Government provides necessary and reasonable support to all potential victims to enable them to meaningfully participate in the investigative process, and that the Government takes protective measures to aid victims’ recovery and protect them from further harm.
Introduce and implement policies and procedures to end human trafficking by terrorist groups
The APPG received evidence indicating systemic failures by UK public authorities to safeguard British women and children from being groomed and trafficked by a terrorist organisation. Experts identified gaps in first responders’ ability to identify indicators that vulnerable individuals were at risk of, or in the process of, being trafficked. There were also specific, and extremely troubling, failings with regard to child trafficking victims. The UK Government has made laudable commitments to tackling modern slavery and must put in place policies and procedures to enable public authorities to respond to the growing phenomenon of trafficking by terrorist groups, and to ensure that victims of trafficking by terrorist groups are afforded the same level of protection as victims of trafficking by any other perpetrator.
Protect the rights of British children and reject family separation
The UK Government must uphold the best interests of British children by repatriating them together with their mothers or primary caregivers. The adoption of policies that lead to family separation is a violation of the UK’s international and domestic law obligations. Moreover, where it is not established that it is in the child’s best interests, the separation of a child from its parents or primary caregivers is abhorrent. The Government should urgently clarify to Parliament its current policy in this area, in view of the concerning evidence that it is encouraging family separations despite a previous statement that it would be “wrong in principle” to do so. It must adopt a clear and categorical position opposing the separation of children from their mothers or primary caregivers.
End practices which jeopardise national and global security
Security experts and representatives of other nations made clear that the refusal to repatriate British nationals and the use of citizenship stripping is an irresponsible abdication of our responsibility, contributes to instability in the region, and creates security risks in third countries less well equipped to manage those risks as well as globally. They have further made clear that abandoning British nationals, including potential victims of trafficking and children, to unlawful detention is a propaganda gift for ISIS. The UK Government must end the use of citizenship stripping and agree to repatriate the small number of British nationals from NES.
Prevent ISIS trafficking and resurgence
The evidence was compelling that abandoning individuals in unlawful detention, in circumstances where many have been victims of abuse and are currently subjected to inhuman and degrading conditions, is likely to lead to their trafficking or re-trafficking by ISIS or similar groups. Apart from fuelling a resurgence of violence and terrorism in the region and providing a propaganda tool for ISIS, such a result will inevitably affect the UK’s own security. The UK Government must repatriate British nationals in detention not only to ensure their safety but also our own.
Ensure access to justice and end impunity
The UK Government’s policy has created a vacuum of accountability and justice. While held in unlawful detention, trafficking victims and individuals deprived of their citizenship have no meaningful access to courts to seek the redress and support to which they are entitled. As the US has made clear, local trials are “untenable for several reasons, including limited resources, the potential application of the death penalty and related human rights concerns […], and the absence of a viable location at which individuals can serve out their sentences in the event of successful prosecutions.” Thus, by refusing to repatriate for prosecution where appropriate, the UK Government is preventing accountability and denying justice to victims of ISIS. The UK Government must immediately repatriate all men, women, and children in NES to enable the fair and transparent adjudication of all of these issues.
End the use of discriminatory citizenship stripping
The APPG heard evidence that the Secretary of State’s power to deprive citizenship where it is “conducive to the public good” has been exercised broadly and arbitrarily, for instance, by failing to take into account individuals’ status as trafficking victims. In addition, its use has been discriminatory, directed almost exclusively against those of ethnic minority heritage. The APPG heard further evidence that the application of citizenship stripping powers has communicated the message that “British Muslims are not ‘real’, full British citizens.” The APPG finds that this power has created discriminatory tiers of citizenship and that – far from being an effective counter-terrorism measure – it in fact endangers national and global security. The APPG notes with concern that the Government is now seeking to expand this power in the Nationality and Borders Bill by allowing the Secretary of State to carry out deprivations without notice. The APPG concludes that rather than expanding this power, citizenship deprivations under it should be suspended.
Review the impact of UK counter-terrorism policy on Black, Brown and Muslim communities
The APPG heard compelling first-hand testimony from family members of individuals detained in NES about the devastating impact UK policies have had on them and their families. It also received a range of evidence describing the harm caused to Black, Brown and Muslim communities in the UK. It understands that the UK’s approach to detentions in NES is derived from the UK’s wider counter-terrorism framework. The APPG recommends that an independent review be established to assess the impact of government policy concerning NES and its broader counter-terrorism policy, as relevant. The review should include wide consultation with affected groups, in particular the family members, and should be an open and transparent process to identify key learnings and inform future practice.