British nationals are to be banned from entering or remaining in parts of conflict-stricken Syria in the first use of a controversial new rule. Home Secretary Sajid Javid is to give British citizens in northern Syria 28 days to leave or face up to ten years in prison when they return to the UK. Britons will also be banned from travelling to Idlib and the northeast of the country under new powers to tackle jihadist fighters.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid revealed on 20 May how he expects the law to be used. In a speech at Scotland Yard, he said Britons who are in Syria “without a legitimate reason should be on notice”.
He stated: “So, under the new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act, we introduced a power where, if necessary to protect the public from terrorism, I can designate a region anywhere in the world and make it an offence for British nationals to be there.”
The new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act
The new Counter Terrorism and Border Security Act received royal assent in February 2019 and created the power to deal with fighters who had travelled to Syria and Iraq. It allows the Home Secretary to ban British nationals from travelling to, or remaining in, a “specific designated area” – or face up to 10 years in prison. It also amends certain terrorism offences, increases the maximum penalty for certain offences and strengthens the powers of the police to prevent and investigate terrorist offences.
The move comes after Britons who joined the Islamic State group sought to return to the UK and is intended to protect the public. In February, the Home Secretary told the House of Commons that 900 people from the UK were estimated to have joined the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Of those people, 40 percent were estimated to still be somewhere in the region, 40 percent to have returned, and 20 percent to have been killed in battle. Among those in the area is Shamima Begum, 19, who was stripped of her British citizenship this year by Mr. Savid.
Sir Peter Fahy, former counter-terrorism lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s been a long time coming. Clearly the conflict in Syria has been going for many years and there’s been this problem of what to do with people who go overseas.”
Mr. Fahy also pointed out there would be complications over who the new legislation covered. While there are exempted purposes for travel to the area including working as a journalist, providing humanitarian aid and attending the funeral of or visiting a terminally ill relative, campaigners for press freedom and human rights watchdogs have raised serious concerns about the legislation.
Human rights concerns
A joint statement from nine organisations including Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders last year warned the “vaguely defined” crime of hostile state activity would give border guards wide-ranging powers to stop, search and detain.
Hanif Qadir, Chief Executive of Active Change Foundation who is sometimes advises senior policy makers and government agencies on counter-extremism, told IOHR: “This law that the Home Secretary has introduced actually demonstrates how truly out of touch our government is when it comes to Counter Terrorism and Preventing Extremism.”
He continued: “This law will not stop determined individuals or potential fighters from travelling, and it will not stop terrorist attacks in Britain by those intent on doing so. Although, it will deter genuine and innocent people from travelling to visit family or for emergency reasons, for fear of being criminalised.”
“The Home Secretary is not being practical about this and is simply posturing to the public to show he is ‘a strong person’ for obvious reasons, without actually achieving anything significant in terms of Countering the Threat of Terrorism,” Mr Qadir said.
The position of refugees
Those still in the area will be expected to make their own way to Turkey or Iraq where the UK has consular officials from whom they can seek assistance. Anyone remaining after 28 days will have a “reasonable excuse defence”.
People detained by the Syrian Defence Forces will be deemed unable to leave but the position of those in refugee camps is less clear. Home Office officials said it would be for the UK police and other agencies to produce evidence to show people had been unable to leave a camp in the event of a subsequent investigation.
IOHR Director Valerie Peay addressed the omission in the UK Government’s announcements of the new Counter Terrorism and Border Security legislation.
“British women and children are still in jeopardy and remain involuntarily in the refugee camps of North Eastern Syria- now in a “designated area” under this new legislation. IOHR calls on the UK Government to finally act, through international aid agencies if necessary, to assist these UK citizens to quickly be repatriated to the UK so that they are no longer held in this precarious situation. This legislation can be a catalyst for good to break this deadlock and help to ensure that future generations of ISIS born children do not languish in legal limbo in inhumane conditions any longer. Or, it can be the instrument that makes their repatriation impossible without a 10-year sentence awaiting those that do manage to reach a UK consulate or border point.”