Key findings and recommendations of the Report of the Inquiry by the APPG on Trafficked Britons in Syria

This is a summary of the key findings and recommendations from the Report of the Inquiry by the APPG on Trafficked Britons in Syria. You can read the full report here.

Key Findings

1. British nationals, including children, were trafficked by ISIS to and within Iraq and Syria

The evidence received from human trafficking and security experts suggests that many British nationals currently detained in NES may be victims of human trafficking. The APPG also places great weight on the US government’s conclusion that some individuals in Syria were trafficked. The evidence seen by the APPG illustrates the ways in which British girls and women in particular were taken to Syria by coercive means and were subjected to sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and other forms of exploitation at the hands of ISIS. In addition, the APPG understands that nearly half of the British nationals currently detained in NES, who were not born there, were children at the time of their travel to Syria. In law children cannot consent to their own exploitation and therefore the APPG concludes that many, if not all, of these individuals are likely to be victims of trafficking.

2. UK public authorities systematically failed to protect British nationals, including children, from being trafficked to Syria

The APPG concludes that the UK Government failed to take necessary steps to prevent the trafficking of vulnerable British nationals by ISIS. The UK Government and public authorities, including the police, local authorities, and public officials, failed to identify at-risk individuals when faced with indications that they might be taken to Syria. In several cases, the police and local authorities failed to engage the parents or guardians of at-risk girls who were in the process of being groomed, and there were operational failures at airports and border posts to prevent travel.

3. The UK Government has failed to identify and protect British victims of trafficking in NES

The APPG has heard evidence from a range of experts confirming that the UK is under an obligation to investigate cases of British nationals who may be victims of trafficking and, where this status is confirmed, provide protection and support. These obligations exist regardless of whether the person is located inside or outside the UK. The APPG notes with concern evidence showing that the UK Government has consistently refused to investigate whether British nationals detained in NES are victims of trafficking, and has consequently failed to provide victims with the support and protection to which they are entitled under British law.

4. British nationals, including children and victims of trafficking, are arbitrarily and unlawfully detained in detention facilities, in conditions that are degrading and present an imminent threat to their lives and well-being

The APPG is extremely troubled by the conditions of detention for British nationals in NES, which UK courts have found to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Many of the British detainees have been held for upwards of three years without charge or trial. They face violence, disease, malnutrition, and an ongoing risk of serious harm, including death.

5. The UK Government is failing to protect British nationals from re-trafficking by ISIS

The APPG notes with concern that British nationals currently detained in NES are at risk of being re-trafficked. Individuals in inhuman and unstable conditions of detention, particularly women and children, are inherently at risk of trafficking and exploitation. The APPG is deeply concerned by reports of detained women being forced by their circumstances into marrying men they have never met outside the detention facilities and of children being kidnapped from the camps.

6. The UK Government has adopted punitive policies in relation to potential British victims of trafficking in NES, by:

a. Refusing to repatriate: The UK Government has refused to repatriate British families who may be victims of trafficking from NES. In so doing, the Government is failing to provide victims with the protection and support to which they are entitled. It is also punishing them for the acts of their traffickers by subjecting them to indefinite detention in life-threatening conditions, in violation of the non-punishment principle.

b. Stripping citizenship: The UK Government appears to have adopted a blanket policy of citizenship stripping in respect of any individuals who travelled to Syria, which is inconsistent with the UK’s international human rights and anti-trafficking obligations. This has included stripping the citizenship of victims of trafficking, which is a violation of the non-punishment principle. The UK Government has claimed a security justification for the increased use of citizenship stripping in this context, but the APPG notes the compelling evidence received, including from the US, that this practice harms national and global security. The APPG is also deeply concerned by the discriminatory impact of this policy on Black, Brown, and Muslim individuals and communities.

c. Pursuing a policy of family separation: The UK Government has apparently adopted a policy to encourage the separation of British children from their mothers or primary caregivers, contrary to a Ministerial statement that such a policy would be “wrong in principle”. This is unacceptable from the perspective of the rights of the child. The evidence the APPG received confirms that, where possible, children should be kept with their parent or primary caregiver and that it is clearly possible to repatriate the small number of British families detained in NES as family units. Once in the UK – and only then – can a meaningful assessment of the best interests of the child be conducted.

d. Exposing British nationals to the risk of the death penalty, torture, indefinite unlawful detention, and fair trial violations: If the UK Government does not repatriate its nationals, these individuals could face trials in the region which would put them at a grave risk of torture, the death penalty, and serious fair trial violations. Accordingly, the APPG is deeply concerned by the UK Government’s public statements that express support for prosecutions of British nationals in the region. The APPG is also gravely concerned by evidence that the UK may be contributing financially to the continued detention of individuals, including children, in indefinite and unlawful detention.

e. Criminalising the families of detainees: The APPG has heard troubling evidence about the treatment of British family members of individuals detained in NES. Rather than treating these family members as families of missing persons, the families report feeling that the police and Government treated them as suspects or criminals and, as a result, missed opportunities to prevent trafficking of young Britons to Syria. The APPG is concerned in particular by the damaging effect this will have on the police’s relationship with the communities they serve.

7. The UK’s policy violates the rights of detained children, including British children

The APPG concludes that children in detention in NES are being held arbitrarily, without trial, and exposed to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Detained children are also at risk of death, separation from their parents, being rendered effectively stateless, and being trafficked or re-trafficked. The APPG condemns the UK Government’s contribution to these violations. The APPG is also gravely concerned by evidence that the Government is financially contributing to the unlawful detention of children in NES.

8. The UK Government’s policy towards British nationals in NES jeopardises regional stability and harms national and global security

The UK Government’s current policy of non-repatriation exacerbates the volatile and unsustainable situation, notably by increasing the risk of the collapse of detention facilities. Both the US and the ANNES have underscored the likelihood of such an outcome. A collapse would destabilise the region and have devastating national and global security repercussions. Moreover, the continued unlawful detention of thousands of women and children in abhorrent conditions is a propaganda gift to ISIS. The APPG notes that the UK’s closest security allies, including the US, have repeatedly called upon the UK to repatriate all of its nationals from NES in the interests of regional and global security.

9. The UK Government is able to effect repatriation of its nationals from NES

The APPG notes that the UK Government’s position that it is unable, including for security reasons, to repatriate British nationals from NES is undermined not only by the repatriations undertaken by multiple other countries, some with significantly fewer resources at their disposal than the UK, but also by the US offer to assist if required. The APPG also finds the AANES’ calls for assistance in managing tens of thousands of detainees and unequivocal position that it would release British detainees to the Government to be extremely persuasive. It is difficult to understand the UK’s position that it cannot manage repatriations in light of this evidence.

10. The UK Government is increasingly becoming an outlier amongst its key allies, undermining the UK’s reputation as a global leader on issues of peace and security

The UK’s failure to repatriate its nationals is a total abdication of our responsibility for our citizens which has tarnished our reputation on the international stage. The APPG has heard expert evidence that this failure is a major point of friction between the UK and its allies, particularly the US. The APPG is particularly concerned that the UK appears to have undermined international efforts to cooperate on this issue and that key aspects of the government’s policy, notably citizenship deprivations and non-repatriation of British nationals from NES, are harming global efforts to fight terrorism.

11. The UK Government’s policy is fostering impunity and hindering access to justice

The APPG concludes that by refusing to repatriate its nationals, the UK is preventing justice from being done. In cases where prosecution may be appropriate, trials in the region, though proposed as a potential solution by the UK, are widely understood to be unrealistic, and carry the risk of torture, the death penalty, and serious fair trial violations. By shunning the British justice system, the Government sends the message that it does not trust the capacity of its own police, prosecutors, and courts. It also prevents those who committed crimes from being properly held to account and denies justice to victims – including British victims – of ISIS crimes. Moreover, potential victims of trafficking are denied a venue to have their status recognised and their traffickers investigated; those stripped of citizenship cannot appeal because they are denied access to courts; and innocent people – including British children – are detained indefinitely without charge or trial in life threatening conditions.

12. The UK Government’s policy concerning British nationals in NES is discriminatory

Evidence received by the A PPG highlighted the devastating and discriminatory impact the UK’s policies in this area have had on minority communities’ sense of security and belonging within the UK. Citizenship deprivations, in particular, have created a tiered system of British citizenship, with ethnic minorities being disproportionately eligible to have their citizenship stripped. Moreover, these powers have been used almost exclusively against Muslims, mainly of South Asian, Middle-Eastern, and African heritage. The APPG is extremely troubled that many family members of those detained report feeling like second-class citizens as a result of the Government’s approach to this issue. The APPG also understands that the Government’s misguided and harmful approach to detention in NES, which underpins family members’ feelings and concerns, is rooted in the UK’s broader counter-terrorism framework. The APPG concludes that British policy regarding its nationals in NES is discriminatory and should be re-assessed.

Key Recommendations

In light of the foregoing, the APPG recommends that the UK Government undertakes the following steps:

1. 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 closes security allies.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.