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UK has allowed 'small number' of children to return from Syria

Critics have accused the UK government of abandoning British children who fled IS territory and are stuck in refugee camps
Shamima Begum with her newborn son in a northern Syria refugee camp (Supplied)

The UK has allowed a "small number" of British children who were living in Syria to return to the UK over the past year, government officials have confirmed.

The revelation comes as Britain's home secretary Sajid Javid faces pressure over Britain's repatriation policy of children from war-torn countries following the death of Shamima Begum's three-week-old baby in a refugee camp in northern Syria last month.  

In the last 12 months there have been a small number of British children who have left Syria and returned to the UK via third countries

- Home Office Minister Baroness Williams 

Begum was 15 when she left London to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group. Now 19, she expressed her desire to return home in a February interview when she emerged heavily pregnant in Al-Hol, the refugee camp.

Soon after, Javid announced that she had been stripped of her citizenship, sparking a national debate over whether she and other UK citizens who joined IS should be allowed to return.

The death of Jarrah, Begum's son, in March led to further criticism of the government, which has been accused of rendering the young Londoner stateless and abandoning her and her young child. Begum's family launched legal proceedings against the UK government after her citizenship was revoked.

As debate has swirled, it has remained unclear exactly what government policy for British children in Syria and other warzones is, a delay that critics say has put them at greater risk to factors in these countries.

But earlier this week, in a written response, Home Office minister Susan Williams said that British children had left Syria and been allowed back into the UK over the past year.

"We can confirm that in the last 12 months there have been a small number of British children who have left Syria and returned to the UK via third countries," Williams wrote.

A girl at Al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria (AFP)
A girl at Al-Hol refugee camp in northern Syria (AFP)

"If a British child who has been in Syria is able to seek consular assistance outside of Syria, then we would work with local and UK authorities to facilitate their return if requested."

Williams also reiterated the government's stance that it would not put the lives of UK officials at risk to assist individuals who left Britain to join "proscribed terrorist groups". 

Williams gave no further detail on the age of the children or whether they had come back from territory controlled by the Islamic State group. 

'British infants being held captive'

Maya Foa, director of the London-based legal non-profit Reprieve, criticised Britain's repatriation policy of children stuck inside refugee camps in northern Syria. 

The longer the government fails to come up with a plan, the greater the risk that these people will either be released or face torture and the death penalty in Syria or Iraq

- Maya Foa, Reprieve

"These are not camps where children can come and go where they please. These are detention sites where British infants are being held captive in overcrowded and life-threatening conditions," Foa told Middle East Eye.  

"The Kurdish authorities who are holding the children have said that they would willingly facilitate the return of the children and their families to the UK if the British authorities requested it."

The British government's best option, said Foa, to keep track of individuals deemed to be a security threat is to "repatriate both children and adults and, where they are accused of crimes, to bring prosecutions in UK courts".

"The longer the government fails to come up with a plan, the greater the risk that these people will either be released or face torture and the death penalty in Syria or Iraq," she added.

Over the weekend, images emerged of malnourished children belonging to foreign fighters who had left IS territory, stuck inside Al-Hol.

Earlier this year, Javid suggested that hundreds of children may have been born to "foreign fighters", with women accounting for a significant proportion of IS foreign fighters remaining in Syria.  

During a session of the Home Affairs Select Committee in February, he said that it would be "incredibly difficult" to bring back British children from the refugee camps in northern Syria. 

He ruled out sending UK officials to the Kurdish-run refugee camps, but did say that it was possible to repatriate British children who had sought refuge in third countries, which has clearly already been happening.