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Syria: Illegal detention of British children must end, says former UK minister

David Davis demands disclosure of number of British minors still held in detention in Kurdish run camps in northeast Syria
A general view of al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria 2 April 2019 (Reuters)
The al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate, Syria 2 April 2019 (Reuters)

A former UK cabinet minister has condemned his government's continued funding of what he described as the illegal detention of British minors in camps controlled by the Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria's northeast. 

In a letter sent on Sunday to James Cleverly, the UK's foreign secretary, David Davis demanded that the government disclose the numbers of British nationals detained in the camps, described by one NGO as "Britain’s Guantanamo in the desert".

Their detention, he wrote, was illegal and arbitrary, constituting a “collective punishment… funded by the British taxpayer".

The letter comes after the recent emergence of video footage showing Australian teenager Yusuf Zahan, who had been detained in northeast Syria since he was 14 and was presumed dead.

Zahan was believed to have been killed in a 2022 air strike by the Islamic State (IS). The recent video, dated September 2022, revealed the 19-year-old was still alive. 

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The video has shed new light on the plight of thousands of foreign minors forced to grow up in SDF-controlled camps after their parents brought them over to fight for the IS. 

In July, Fionnuala Ni Aolain - the UN special rapporteur for the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism - was the first UN expert to gain access to Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps, where approximately 56,000 suspected IS members and their families are held.   

Speaking after the visit, Aolain decried “what appears to be an unending cycle of cradle-to-grave detention” and expressed grave concerns about the “snatching” of hundreds of boys from their mothers by the SDF.

According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 23,000 children, who are not originally from Iraq and Syria, are being held in indefinite detention based on their alleged links with the IS.

In his letter, Davis highlighted the “dire conditions” faced by minors held in detention, including the overcrowded and poorly ventilated cells, and the limited access to food and medical care.

“Boys in these prisons are at risk of violence, sexual violence, trafficking, forced recruitment, and death.” he wrote.

In 2021, a report by Rights and Security International (RSI) found that British children and women were being held in "life-threatening" conditions in the camps.

“No one should be abandoned to torture and death, let alone because of Islamophobic stereotypes or unproven assumptions,” Sarah St Vincent, RSI’s executive director, said. 

According to the UN, which wrote to the British government in 2022, the UK has been supplying up to £20 million in funding to the camps.

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