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Open letter urges UK Government to repatriate unlawfully detained British families from Northeast Syria

In a heartfelt plea to the UK government, an open letter signed by concerned individuals and civil society organisations calls for the immediate repatriation of approximately 25 British families who are unlawfully detained in northeast Syria. The letter highlights the dire conditions in which these families, primarily consisting of children, are living and emphasises the urgent need for their return to the UK.

The open letter, addressed to the UK government and signed by AOAV, reveals that the detained British families, most of whom have children under the age of 10, are enduring conditions that have been described as cruel, inhumane, and degrading. Reports have even suggested instances of torture inflicted upon them. Despite these alarming circumstances, the families have been left abandoned by their governments, existing in squalid environments where they face daily threats of violence, disease, and other deprivations.

Of grave concern is the fact that young British boys and girls are growing up in this perilous environment, lacking access to education, adequate food, clean water, shelter, and medical care due to the government’s refusal to repatriate them. The situation is exacerbated by the prevalence of sexual abuse and exploitation faced by many British women residing in the camps, some of whom were trafficked to Syria as children or coerced into traveling there. Additionally, children lack protection from murder, accidents, treatable illnesses, sexual abuse, and child labor. Heartbreakingly, boys as young as eleven are being forcibly separated from their families and transferred to other facilities, including male prisons, where they endure horrific conditions and face heightened risks of abuse.

These British children, like all others held in the region, have already experienced the traumas of conflict, bombardment, and acute deprivation. They require specialized assistance to recover from their harrowing experiences and reintegrate into society, an impossible task in overcrowded displacement camps with limited access to essential services, all within a volatile war zone.

The open letter highlights that the UK government’s stance on repatriation is a political choice that forsakes these children and their families. Several key allies of Britain, including France, Spain, Australia, Canada, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, have recognized the importance of repatriation from a security perspective and have taken steps to bring their own nationals home. The United States has successfully repatriated almost all of its citizens, including men.

Numerous studies have shown that, despite the ordeals they have endured, many of these children can successfully reintegrate and resume their education. Moreover, British courts are well-equipped to deliver justice in cases where adults may have committed offenses. The authorities in northeast Syria have expressly stated their inability to effectively manage the camps and have appealed to countries to take responsibility for their citizens. They have even written to MPs and Peers, expressing their willingness to facilitate repatriations if requested by the UK Government. Past successful repatriations, such as that of a British woman and her child last year, demonstrate that bringing these families home is a viable option.

The open letter firmly asserts that the UK government’s refusal to repatriate its own citizens not only violates human rights obligations but also abdicates responsibility and poses a risk to the country’s global reputation. It highlights the irony of the government’s willingness to spend substantial funds on constructing a new prison in northeast Syria, where foreigners, including boys, are unlawfully detained without charge, while failing to allocate resources to bring its nationals home for rehabilitation, reintegration, and the appropriate investigation and prosecution of adults.

Governments that hinder their nationals’ returns are deemed complicit in these unlawful detentions. The open letter emphasises that Britain must fulfil its responsibility toward its citizens and avoid casting them into a legal black hole under dire conditions. Repatriation, it argues, carries fewer risks than abandoning them in northeast Syria, where hardliners could regroup and children could fall prey to ISIS recruitment efforts, as warned by numerous counter-terrorism experts, including a former director of counter-terrorism at MI6. The letter concludes by urging the UK government to prioritise common sense, respect for the rule of law, and moral obligations over narrow political considerations.

Dr Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence, said of the situation: “By refusing to repatriate these unlawfully detained British families from northeast Syria, the UK government is not only abandoning its citizens but also reneging on its human rights obligations. The dire conditions in which these families are living, exposed to violence, disease, and deprivation, amount to cruel and inhumane treatment. It is high time for the government to prioritise the safety and well-being of these vulnerable children and their families, and to bring them back to their home country where they can receive the necessary support for recovery and reintegration.”

The message conveyed in the open letter is clear: it is long overdue for the UK government to bring these British families home and provide them with the support they desperately need to rebuild their lives.