UN Special Rapporteur: UK has legal obligation to repatriate British nationals trafficked to Syria

14th July 2021, London

Yesterday, at the first evidence session of an inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria, the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, Siobhán Mullally, stated that countries including the UK have a legal obligation to repatriate their citizens who have been trafficked by criminal and terrorist gangs. 

Mullally suggested that failing to bring back victims such as the British women and children trafficked by ISIS and now detained in North-East Syria, and instead stripping many of citizenship, puts them at risk of being re-trafficked and breaches international law. The ‘non-punishment principle’ protecting trafficking victims “applies without exception” she added, including where they are trafficked by terrorists.

Former police officer and trafficking expert Steve Harvey said victims of trafficking should be treated the same regardless of who they are trafficked by. “Trafficking is trafficking is trafficking,” he said. “There’s not a law that I’ve seen anywhere in the world that says ‘you’re trafficked unless you’re trafficked by this particular person, group or entity.’”

Duke University of Law Professor Jayne Huckerby echoed this point: “It’s very difficult to see a distinction between cases in which ISIS recruits women, girls, men and boys, and which organised gangs within the UK recruit individuals too, and we have to question ‘why the distinction in treatment?’”

Commenting on the launch of the APPG’s inquiry, Andrew Mitchell MP, Co-Chair of the APPG, said:

“This inquiry is sorely needed, to identify the gaps in the UK Government response that allowed British citizens to be trafficked to Syria by ISIS and to ensure that it cannot happen again. The state failed to protect these British women and children and is failing them still. We can and must do better, with an evidence-based approach that recognises them as victims of a criminal terrorist gang.” 

Following the evidence session, Lord Jay of Ewelme, Co-Chair of the APPG, said:  

“We heard chilling evidence about how ISIS targeted vulnerable British nationals, and about the failure of British authorities to protect them. The experts made clear that that a refusal to repatriate victims is a breach of the UK’s obligations and of the principle enshrined in international law that victims of trafficking must not be punished for the crimes of their traffickers.” 


Notes to editors:  

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria is chaired by Andrew Mitchell MP (Conservative), Lyn Brown MP (Labour) and cross bench peer and former head of the diplomatic service Lord Jay. Its vice chairs include Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (Conservative), David Davis MP (Conservative), Andy Slaughter (Labour), Apsana Begum (Labour) and Stuart C. McDonald MP (SNP). Other members include the Chairs of Parliament’s Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood MP (Conservative) and Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat MP (Conservative), as well as Baroness Hamwee (Lib Dem).

The APPG interviewed four expert witnesses: the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking, Siobhan Mullally, former police officer and trafficking expert Steve Harvey, Tarana Baghirova from the Office for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and Jayne Huckerby, an academic expert on the nexus between trafficking and terrorism. 

Please find key quotes from the experts’ evidence below. Transcripts of the experts’ other comments are available on request.

International law enforcement and anti-trafficking expert, Steve Harvey:

“It’s the state’s responsibility, starting from the top and trickling down, to identify victims of trafficking to make sure they’re not subjected to any human rights abuses… It’s ironic that I travel the world training overseas law enforcement officers and I used to talk about UK standards and UK best practices. I don’t mention it now because we don’t see many examples of best practice and I cannot say that there is blanket coverage across UK law enforcement on training basic awareness of what human trafficking looks like.”

“I know that the Home Secretary was in Tirana last week. I hope she brought back a copy of the Albanian State Police Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on victim identification because they are one of the few European countries that have an SOP – we don’t. In the UK there’s not a single police force in England and Wales that I’m aware of that can hold up an SOP by which its officers are trained but yet, Albania has one, Ghana has one, Jordan has one.”

“I don’t think anything common is in place, I think it’s totally ad hoc. I speak with victims on a regular basis, the level of interviews is shockingly poor… it’s ad hoc you do not see a standard response, you do not see a default common response to a potential victim of trafficking being intercepted by a first responder – by border force, immigration and customs, police, whoever. That is my personal experience.”

Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Siobhán Mullaly:

“The state has positive obligations to take steps where the trafficking has been by others, by non-state actors and where the victims are now outside the UK, outside of its territory.”

“The [European Court of Human Rights] has noted a failure to apply the non-punishment principle would be injurious to a victim’s physical, psychological and social recovery and could potentially leave them to being re-trafficked in the future. That principle of non-punishment applies without exception, regardless of the seriousness or gravity of the offence. The Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking (GRETA) in its evaluation of the UK has highlighted that and called on the UK to remove any limits on that.” 

Human trafficking expert at Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Tarana Baghirova:

“The Convention on the Rights of a Child gives a good definition on how to treat the children and it’s ‘what’s in the best interests of this child – to be repatriated with the parent or without the parent?’ I think it’s always the child’s right to be with the parent and some western countries even have discriminated on the age of the child for repatriation. They decided that they will bring the smaller ones back but not the bigger ones… This is already a violation on the Convention of the Rights of a Child which all the OSCE states [except the United States] have ratified.”

Professor of Law, Duke University, Jayne Huckerby:

“Article 8 of the UN trafficking protocol makes very clear that part of the right to remedy for trafficking victims includes repatriation. There’s a positive obligation that’s not being observed and the UK government ratified the UN protocol back in 2006.”

“We have a whole set of specific principles to deal with someone who has been trafficked and has engaged in forced criminality and that is the non-punishment principle. When we think about citizenship stripping when we think about non-repatriation… all of those violate the treatment that is designated for trafficked persons.”