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Syria camps: British detainees enduring 'coward's form of Guantanamo'

The former director of British public prosecutions says treatment of UK citizens in northeast Syria is 'a blot on our conscience'
Soldiers from the Syrian Democratic Forces keep watch on 30 March 2021 in the vicinity of al-Hol camp, Syria (AFP)

The UK's treatment of British nationals detained in northeast Syria is "a coward's form of Guantanamo" and "a blot on our conscience", according to Lord Ken Macdonald, a former director of British Public Prosecutions, one of the country's top legal jobs.

Speaking at an evidence session for an all-parliamentary inquiry into UK citizens detained in Syria on Monday, Macdonald said that UK policy appeared to be "let someone else run your Guantanamo and then have the use of it without dirtying your hands too much".

Thousands of foreigners travelled to Syria and Iraq at the height of the Islamic State (IS) group's takeover of roughly a third of both countries.

While IS has since lost control of these territories, the fate of foreigners detained in Kurdish-run camps, the majority of whom are women and children, has remained a lingering question for many countries reluctant to repatriate citizens who may have had ties to the group.

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Reprieve, a human rights group based in London, estimates that 25 British adults and 34 British children, including a 12-year-old girl, continue to be indefinitely held in the camps, which UK courts have said equates to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment".

Macdonald described the fact that the UK has not repatriated the "scores of demonstrably innocent people" in Syria - including British children and their mothers who were trafficked there, some of whom were trafficked when they were themselves children - as a "blot on our conscience".

A British parliamentary group launched an inquiry in July into the trafficking of British nationals by IS, hearing testimony from experts who criticised "ad-hoc" policing and urged the UK government to "look at terrorism cases… through the trafficking lens".

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria is seeking the repatriation of trafficking survivors currently held in Kurdish-run camps across northern Syria for family members of suspected IS militants.

'Denial of responsibility'

Shamima Begum, a British woman who travelled to join the IS group in 2015 at the age of 15, and was trafficked, experts say, was stripped of her nationality in 2019, and denied the right to appeal the ruling.

Begum, who was born in the UK to parents who are Bangladeshi nationals, says that she has no other citizenship.

Under international law it is illegal to make a citizen stateless; however the UK government argues she qualifies for Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents. Bangladesh, meanwhile, has repeatedly stated that it wouldn't grant Begum citizenship.

Speaking on Monday to the inquiry's evidence session, Shahzad Akbar, the federal minister and adviser to prime minister on accountability and interior from the government of Pakistan, described the practice of citizenship stripping as a "very self-centered approach to a global problem… it's a policy of making your problem, someone else's problem.”

The US has repeatedly implored western countries to repatriate their nationals, though their pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Chris Harnisch, former deputy coordinator for the US State Department's bureau of counterterrorism, repeated on Monday a long-held US position that refusal to repatriate "plays into the hands of terrorists" and "will make all of us less safe".

"The most important single reason why countries should repatriate their nationals from Syria is to prevent a re-emergence of this caliphate," he added.

The US has been prosecuting British nationals involved in atrocities committed in the name of the so-called Islamic State. Macdonald described this as an "embarrassment", asking, "have we lost so much confidence in ourselves?"

He said the "denial of responsibility" was "demeaning" and a "denial of sovereignty", adding that he had "no doubt at all" that British nationals who had committed offences could be prosecuted.

'Guantanamo for children'

Many children have died in the camps - two per week according to a recent report - and several French women there have claimed to have been beaten by guards, according to families and a lawyer speaking to Middle East Eye.

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NGO Rights and Security International has meanwhile accused western countries of being complicit in the creation of a “Guantanamo for children” by leaving them in “violent, unsanitary and inhumane” conditions.

The British cross-party parliamentary group - which is chaired by Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, Labour MP Lyn Brown, and Lord Jay of Ewelme, a crossbench peer and former head of the diplomatic service - is seeking to "learn lessons from public authorities’ failure to identify and protect victims of Daesh trafficking" - using an alternate Arabic acronym for the militant group. 

Lord Jay of Ewelme said in April, ahead of an evidence session on the day of the group's launch, "We must not abandon British trafficking victims to die in the desert or disappear into Bashar al-Assad's torture prisons.

"The government is fully capable of bringing these families home and resolving their cases in the UK."

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