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UK government under pressure to take back British children stuck in Syria

MPs called on British government to take advantage of the last remaining hours of Turkey's ceasefire in northern Syria
A Syrian boy waits near jerry cans in the Al-Hol camp inside the al-Hasakah area in January 2019 (AFP)

The British government was challenged on Tuesday over its policy on the repatriation of children after a charity said the number of British minors stranded in northern Syria was double the initial estimates.  

Save the Children on Monday said that 60 children born to British citizens who had travelled to territory held by the Islamic State (IS) group were stuck across detention and refugee camps in northeast Syria. 

Lodging an urgent question in parliament, David Davis called on the British government to take advantage of the five-day ceasefire to repatriate children. 

"If we do not do the same, British children will be left at the whim of a brutal dictator or a terrorist organisation or roving bands of militia," said Davis. 

Davis said many of the children are under the age of five and bare no responsibility for their parents' "grotesquely misguided and irresponsible decision to go to Syria".

"They should not be punished for their parents’ mistakes."

Andrew Murrison, Minister of State for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, disputed Save the Children's figure and said the government's number was less than 60 children. 

"Our priority clearly has to be unaccompanied children and orphans, and that’s where our attention currently is. […] the situation is fast-moving and getting access to camps and to people is extremely difficult," Murrison told parliament.

Tensions mounted over the safety and whereabouts of children of IS members detained in Kurdish-run detention camps after Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria earlier this month. 

But after Ankara announced a five-day ceasefire last Wednesday, charities told Middle East Eye it hoped UK officials would take advantage of the lull in fighting and use it to evacuate its nationals.

Alison Griffin, a spokesperson for Save the Children, on Monday said the children are innocent and called on Britain to return as many British children as possible from the war-torn area. 

"Children in Syria who have fled ISIS-held areas are innocent. Their short lives have been full of violence and fear but with the right care they can bounce back, recover and amaze us," Griffin said in a statement.  

On Sunday, UK officials told the Guardian that the government was investigating potential avenues to take back children born to IS members in northern Syria. 

Unlike other European countries, Britain has been hesitant in saying whether they will seek to return children from Syria who were born of UK nationals. 

But UK officials have admitted that they have taken back a "small number" of children born to IS members over the last 12 months.

Belgium and other European states meanwhile said they were preparing to evacuate citizens accused of having links to IS.