Details of how police attempted to criminalize British families whose children were trafficked to the Islamic State (IS) in Syria are revealed in a series of testimonies that show how grieving loved ones have d ‘first treated as suspects, then abandoned by the authorities.
One described being “treated like a criminal” and later realizing that the police were only interested in getting information about ISIS rather than trying to help. find his loved one. Another recounted how their home was searched after asking the police for help in locating a missing relative.
Their experiences were revealed during a parliamentary session last week that was closed to the media at the behest of families, fearing they would be misrepresented and harassed. However, four of the families who testified agreed to share their experiences with the Observer anonymously to shed light on their treatment by the authorities and how their daughters have remained stranded in Syrian refugee camps.
A woman has revealed how she cooperated with the police when her sister went missing to learn that the police did not intend to find her. âWe thought the police were there to help us. Over time we could see the police and the authorities did not talk to us to help us, only to get information. Once they got their information, they washed their hands of us.
She added, âWe were never offered support. I felt I had to prove to them that I was anti-extremist; I felt I was still a suspect.
A member of another family said: “I was questioned as if I was a suspect, and once they decided I wasn’t, they really didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. me. It has become really difficult to contact them.
Their testimonies follow a report by the legal charity Reprieve which found that two-thirds of British women detained in northeastern Syria had been coerced or trafficked into the region, often lured there. after being groomed on dating sites, before being sexually exploited.
The report found that many girls were under 18 when they visited ISIS territory and have since suffered exploitation, forced marriage, rape and domestic servitude. These include a young British girl who was trafficked to Syria at the age of 12, then raped and pregnant by an IS fighter. One of the most high-profile UK cases of children joining ISIS involves three London schoolgirls, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase and Shamima Begum, both 15. The latter’s lawyer says there is “overwhelming evidence” that Begum was trafficked.
The family’s testimony was given to the all-party parliamentary group on the British Trafficking in Syria, which will issue a report in the new year.
Only around 20 British families are currently stranded in northeastern Syria, but the Home Office refuses to consider repatriating the women and children. He even took away the citizenship of most, including Begum.
The UK government’s position is at odds with that of other European states, and the US has called on Western countries to take responsibility for their citizens and bring them home.
Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary and chair of the all-party parliamentary group, said: âIf the government listened only to these families, it would surely realize the inhumanity and sheer mistake of abandoning British citizens in detention camps in the desert.
âThis terrible policy affects ordinary law-abiding families and unraveled the fabric of our multicultural society. Whether from a security or moral point of view, the case for repatriation could not be clearer. “
Former Foreign Minister Baroness Warsi said: “Many of us in Parliament are very concerned about what is happening here, especially in relation to the precedent it sets.”
All of the families who testified expressed anger at the way the UK government had abandoned the principle of innocence until proven guilty with regard to their children, a move they said undermined the position. UK International.
One said: âNormally, western governments talk about human rights and trafficking. However, when it was my family who were abused and trafficked, they even decided not to investigate their cases. They are considered guilty simply because they are in Syria.
They added: âWomen and children are punished without trial. I don’t know why Britain decided to abandon its principles in the case of my family.
Another family member said: âI felt really betrayed and [she] felt confused as to why her country had abandoned her. I have now lost faith in the people who are supposed to help and protect us. We no longer have our rights.
Data from Reprieve indicates that British families in northeastern Syria include around 19 wives and 38 children; more than half of the children are five years old or younger. The UK government has withdrawn citizenship from at least 20 of the adults, including Begum. This position seems strange, experts say, when compared to the fact that only 40 or more of the 400 Britons who returned to the UK after traveling to Syria or Iraq to join terrorist organizations have been prosecuted.
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve, said that families in the camps had “been stripped of all their rights, presumed guilty without trial, subjected to violence and abandoned by the government”. She said the government “appeared to be looking to inflict as much damage as possible on this group – which is mostly made up of British children – to make some sort of political point,” adding that it was “dangerous to our safety as well as to the interests of justice “. .
Reprieve’s research into UK victims of trafficking is based on extensive work in Syrian camps, while the Home Office has made no apparent attempt to visit the camps or assess whether the women have been exploited.
The British government defended its position, saying it viewed British families as a potential threat to national security.
One of the families said it was laughable that their loved one could be seen as a threat. “[She] is so frail and has been abused. She’s not a threat. She is really scared and vulnerable, âthey said.
Another added that their sister had indeed been imprisoned upon arrival in Syria, saying: âShe was imprisoned in every way; it was a cage from the moment she was there.
Testimonies from families highlighted how UK authorities failed to protect at-risk women and girls from being trafficked to Syria in the first place.
In particular, their testimony raises questions about the authoritarian approach of the police of choosing to view vulnerable young women and children as terrorists rather than as a matter of protection.
“All I want to ask the government is, you had every chance to protect it and you failed, how can you now wash your hands of it?” Said one.
After listening to their testimony, Warsi told session participants that the deprivation of citizenship was of particular concern to her. “It’s important for me to get involved in this, because it could be me, it could be a descendant of my family.
She added, âI was the first Muslim in the government of this country, and this country is the only place my family before and after me would consider home. This is a point of principle that is beyond you and your families, but your families are examples of this principle.
Conditions in the Kurdish-controlled refugee camps are dire – described by the World Health Organization as “deplorable and unbearable”. According to Save the Children, in the first eight months of 2021, 163 people died in Camp al-Hol, including 62 children. There have been at least 81 murders this year. In August last year, eight children under the age of five died in a single week.
A family member told the parliamentary inquiry: âChildren grow up surrounded by threats of violence and dangers such as frequent tent fires.
Another added that her grandchildren “suffered” in the camps: “The children are still young. I don’t want them raised in dangerous camps, without access to medical facilities or education.