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Fight against extremism in the UK at the expense of children – Report on hateful extremism launched

UK report demonstrates the need of intensifying the fight against extremism, while British children are left in Syrian refugee camps 

On 24 February 2021 the British Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) launched its report “Operating with Impunity – Hateful extremism: The need for a legal framework” on the adequacy of the current legislation in dealing with hateful extremism. Its results are alarming: Extremist groups of all kinds are able to operate lawfully in the UK since there is no specific legislation capturing hateful extremism. 

The glorifying of hatred and terrorism is currently not illegal, such as denying the Holocaust or praising terrorists like Osama Bin Laden and Anders Brevik, as long as the material does not directly encourage violence. This creates a dangerous climate of spreading hatred online against racial or religious groups, which is triggering more violence. Co-author Sir Mark Rowley added: 

“Hateful extremism is creating an ever-bigger pool for terrorists to recruit from, as well as increasing violence, hate crime and tensions between and within communities. The current situation is simply untenable.”

The growing radicalisation of the youth is backed by a study showing the sharp rise in anti-Semitism; 15% of young people and 20% of young male respondents to a 2020 poll said that the Nazi Holocaust is a lie, and the number of Jews killed during World War II has been exaggerated on purpose. 

The Commission, which was set up by the government in 2017, has explored terrorist acts such as the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, or the 2017 London Bridge attack and how they might have been avoidable with the right approach. The report calls on the government to fill the current legal gaps and recommends criminalising the possession of terrorist material, as this should serve as evidence of pre-existing extremism. This is thought to capture activities that are inducing an environment of violence but are below the terrorism threshold. 

Other recommendations include the banning of groups and organisations, introducing new hate crime offences, and a classification system for extremist content. Previous efforts of tightening terrorist laws have failed due to the fact that there was no agreed definition of “extremism” and due to concerns of possible solutions criminalizing free speech, dissent or unpopular opinions.  

Although the report aims to only target hateful extremism, that is to say only activities and material advancing political, religious or racial supremacist ideology that either creates a climate conducive to violence, or attempts to erode the fundamental rights and freedom of the democratic society, it falls short of providing full details of a legal framework or a legal definition. Despite its support by David Cameron and Tony Blair, the report faces criticism in regard to its reference of “British values”, or its observation of extremists “intellectualising” and exploiting human rights for their tactics. This is a reminder of Theresa May’s conviction that changing human rights laws if they “get in the way” of fighting terrorism is the right way to go. 

While the UK is battling the impunity of extremism in the country, it simultaneously fails to protect its children who are still abroad in refugee camps. The repatriation of European children born to foreign fighters has been a burning issue for years, as thousands are waiting for rescue in overcrowded refugee camps in Syria since the collapse of the Islamic State. 

On Saturday, 20 February 2021, ten French women who are currently held in detention camps in Syria began a hunger strike to protest their government’s refusal to bring them home for a trial. The women had left France to join the Islamic State, and have been detained by Kurdish forces for at least 2 years. These women, as well as others and some 200 children of French foreign fighters are in a legal limbo in the overcrowded camp. In the beginning of February, UN experts have issued letters to 57 states, including France and the UK, urging them to repatriate their national women and children without delay: 

“Thousands of people held in the camps are exposed to violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation in conditions and treatment that may well amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law, with no effective remedy at their disposal. An unknown number have already died because of their conditions of detention.”

IOHR has been pushing for the repatriation of children, especially orphans, in Syrian refugee camps with its campaign #BringUKChildrenHome for more than two years now. There are still at least 60 children, almost all under 12, born to UK nationals, in the camp of Al Hol, which is severely overcrowded with more than 70% of camp residents being under 18. The UK government has been very slow in responding, and favoured citizenship stripping and relinquishing responsibility for their wellbeing over ensuring their safe return. 

The case of Shamima Begum, whose citizenship was revoked on national security grounds, is one of the most prominent examples demonstrating how the government counters terrorism. The judgement on whether she should be granted the leave to enter the UK in order to challenge the removal of her British citizenship, is expected on Friday, 26 February 2021. This Supreme Court decision will prepare the ground for how the UK has to deal with similar cases going forward. 

Sacrificing the lives of innocent children during the course of combating extremism is unacceptable. The UK government needs to take actions to bring British children back home and find a way of combatting terrorism and extremism that is in line with international human rights law. IOHR urges the government to provide an effective system of repatriation for British children, which includes psychological support and rehabilitation. Defending British values on UK territory is not of much value if, at the same time, UK children are abandoned in dire situations in Syria, who are not the perpetrators but the victims of extremism.

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