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Syria: 12-year-old among British survivors of 'systematic' human trafficking by Islamic State

Reprieve says many of the women stranded in northeast Syria were victims of sexual exploitation when held in Islamic State territory
A member of Kurdish security looks on as Syrian families are released from the Kurdish-run Al-Hol camp, which holds suspected relatives of Islamic State fighters, March 2021 (AFP)

The majority of British women who fled territory once held by the Islamic State (IS) group and are now stranded in camps across northeast Syria are survivors of human trafficking, a new report has revealed.

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Reprieve, a human rights group based in London, estimates that 25 British adults and 34 British children continue to be held indefinitely inside the camps, including a 12-year-old girl.

In a report published on Friday, Reprieve said that two-thirds of British women detained in Syria met the legal definition of trafficking victims, as they were subject to sexual and other forms of exploitation, with the vast majority under the age of 18.

Based on three years of investigations and multiple visits to the Kurdish-run camps, the report revealed that many British women left in northeast Syria were coerced into travelling there, moved within Syria against their will or were taken to IS territory as children.

Nadia, a British teenager stranded in Syria, told Reprieve that she was 12 when her male relative from the UK took her to IS territory. 

As a young teenager, she was repeatedly raped, forced into marriage at the age of 14, and had her first child - conceived in rape - when she turned 15.

'Sophisticated grooming operation' 

Experts believe IS employed tactics similar to those used by child sex trafficking gangs, and "systematically" recruited hundreds of women and girls "who were forced into marriage, sexual slavery, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation".

Maya Foa, joint executive director of Reprieve, said many of the British women in Syria were "groomed by a sophisticated IS trafficking operation".

"Rather than recognise them as trafficking victims, the [UK] government has in most cases stripped them of citizenship and abandoned them," said Foa. "It should repatriate all British nationals in the camps and bring prosecutions in British courts where there is a case to answer."  

The group's findings come as other rights groups warn about conditions inside the camps and fear that detainees will be transferred to jurisdictions where they can face torture and the death penalty. 

"The camps where these women and children are detained in northeast Syria are fundamentally unsafe and profoundly inappropriate for trafficking survivors," said Emily Ramsden from the Rights and Security International group (RSI). 

"The government is failing to meet its commitment to protecting victims of trafficking and is exposing British women trafficked to Syria to further abuses - including a risk of re-trafficking.” 

Last year, the RSI released a report that estimated there were 640 European children being held in the camps. At least 371 children are recorded as having died in the main Al-Hol camp in 2019 and at least 60 children died between January and August 2020, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Many of those deaths have been due to preventable and treatable conditions such as pneumonia, dehydration and malnutrition, while other infants in Al-Hol have died of gunshot wounds, fires and carbon monoxide poisoning, RSI found.