US Secretary of State urges The UK and France to let jihadis return

At the summit of the international coalition against ISIS (an 83-nation coalition), held in Rome on June 28th, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stated “The United States continues to urge countries – including coalition partners – to repatriate, rehabilitate and, where applicable, prosecute its citizens1. According to the Guardian, these remarks were primarily aimed at both the UK and France, who have resisted calls to bring back their citizens. Blinken added: “this situation is simply untenable. It just can’t persist indefinitely”2. He did, however, praise Italy as one of the few western countries to repatriate returning citizens, and Kazakhstan who had put 600 returning citizens and their family members into rehabilitation programmes. Belgium’s federal prosecution service also recently announced 14 Isis supporters would face trial for their alleged role in assisting the 2015 Paris attacks. Also the US, has repatriated 28 Americans, ten of whom have been prosecuted for terrorist offences3.

A study published by experts Thomas Renard and Rik Coolsaet at the Brussels-based think tank Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations found that between 610-680 children of all European jihadists are currently being held in the Roj and Al-Hol camps in northeastern Syria4. Both of these camps have held many former ISIS fighters since the collapse of the so-called caliphate in 2019, and children are kept with their mothers here. This data was based from a combination of governments, experts and NGOs who are active on the ground5. In a separate report conducted by Human Rights Watch in March 2021, they found almost “43,000 foreign men, women, and children linked to ISIS remain detained in inhuman or degrading conditions by regional authorities in northeast Syria6. They are entering “a third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria while their governments look the other way”7 , said Letta Taylor, an associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. She further added that “governments should be helping to fairly prosecute detainees suspected of serious crimes and free everyone else”8.

A Canadian woman who previously fled to Syria to join Daesh is set to return to Canada, following intervention from a former US Diplomat, Peter Galbraith. This decision by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government stands in contrast to that of other Western countries, like the UK and France. Gailbraith stated that the woman “had proved her rejection of Daesh’s ideology was genuine”9 and provided a lot of information that was invaluable to law enforcement. The Canadian government has also affirmed it will be allowing women and children to return from Syria. However, due to security grounds, they will not send officials where Canadian-nationals remain which leaves women depending on private assistance like Galbraith’s. Galbraith added he understood why countries such as the UK and France were steadfast in their rejections of former Daesh members, and they should err on the side of caution, but children needed to be repatriated10.

Peter Gailbraith now turned to support the case of Shamima Begum – the ex-Bethnal Green schoolgirl who travelled to Syria in February 2015 aged 15. She is currently challenging the removal of her UK citizenship by arguing the Home Office has left her de-facto stateless. Begum currently resides in the same al-Roj camp as the Canadian returnee Gailbraith has assisted, however, he believes Begum will not be freed from the camp without the help of the UK government. “The basic position of the British Government is that Shamima is somehow dangerous and I just don’t think that’s true”11 said Gailbraith. Begum also featured in a recent documentary film “The Return: Life After Isis”, which features personal testimonies from women in the al-Roj camp.

More recently Begum’s lawyers have argued in her hearing in mid-June that she may have been “child trafficked to, and remaining in, Syria for the purpose of sexual exploitation and forced marriage”13. Her barristers have further described the “fundamentally unsafe environment [she is living in, adding: physical violence is common and psychological trauma is endemic”14. David Blundell QC, a representative of the UK Home Office has responded to these claims calling them entirely speculative and she should not be permitted to change her grounds of appeal after two years of legal argument.

The mid-June hearing also considered the cases of three other British women who have had their citizenship revoked on the grounds of national security. They are held in the same al-Roj camp as Begum. The Syrian Democratic Forces, which also runs other camps and prisons for those captured from previous Isis territories, has repeatedly asked the UK and other western countries to repatriate their nationals. Yet, the British government is still “depriving surviving Isis members their UK citizenship in a bid to stop them returning”15.

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