UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has released a statement on the UK’s consideration of how to bring back the children of Britons, who left the UK to join militant groups. He said he was working with Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, on how children could be safely returned.
“We have been looking at how we can get in touch with these children, how we can find a way to get them out,” Hunt said.
Hunt also mentioned the tragic death of Shamima Begum’s newborn son, saying the death was “an incredibly distressing and sad situation” but that it was too dangerous to dispatch officials to the warzone, adding that they would be at a greater risk than the journalists who had interviewed Shamima.
Shamima Begum, 19, who fled to Syria from Bethnal Green in east London four years ago, had pleaded to be allowed back to Britain with her son, having already lost two children. After a controversial decision made by the Home Secretary in February, Shamima’s British citizenship was revoked. She gave birth to a son only a few weeks ago in a Syrian camp, who tragically died in pneumonia on 7 March, only three weeks old.
There are said to be currently over 100 children born to British nationals trapped in Syria facing an uncertain and dangerous future. There are at least 700 children born to foreign militants still in war-torn Syria, but a report by Save the Children says it has found more than 2,500 children from 30 countries in three camps alone.
According to a 2018 report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), at least 3,704 foreign-born children were taken to IS territory by their parents or carers, including 460 from France, at least 350 from Russia and almost 400 from Morocco. Several hundred of these children are known to have returned to their home countries since. A number are also likely to have died in IS territory.
UK policy change
The shift in UK policy marks a rapid turnaround from previous government statements and position, notably from the Home Secretary who has taken a path of citizenship deprivation over repatriation. The UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has been accused of moral cowardice by Lord Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions of England and Wales between 2003 and 2008. Macdonald accused Javid of “treating the UK as a banana republic” in pursuit of his leadership ambitions following the death of the three-week old son of Shamima Begum. He said to the Guardian,
“This was an abject decision by a home secretary apparently so intent on furthering his leadership ambitions that he has lost sight of sovereignty, treating the UK as a banana republic incapable of regulating its own citizens,”
However, in the wake of ongoing criticism, UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt delivered a different message as reported in the Sunday Times, suggesting that the Foreign Office were working on a plan to get British children back. He said but that it was too dangerous to send officials to the warzone, emphasising that the risk to FCO officials would be considerably greater than that of journalists. In an interview on the Andrew Marr show Mr Hunt said,
“Shamima knew when she made the decision to join Daesh that she was going to a country where there’s no embassy, where there’s no consular assistance and I’m afraid those decisions, awful though it is, they do have consequences,”
He went on to say that he was working with the international development secretary Penny Mordaunt to see how the children could be safely returned. Reflecting on the case of Begum’s son he said, “We have been looking at how we can get in touch with these children, how we can find a way to get them out. Sadly, in this case, it wasn’t possible,”.
The Home Office has repeatedly said that it cannot formally comment on individual cases. Their official statement said,
“Any decisions to deprive individuals of their citizenship are based on all available evidence and not taken lightly.”
UK and European Cases
In the wake of the Begum case, a number of other cases have come to light including other British women who have had their citizenship revoked. The Sunday Times have named two British sisters, Reema and Zara Iqbal from Canning Town in east London, as another two British citizens who have had their citizenship revoked. The Iqbal sisters are said to have married into a terrorist cell linked to the murder of western hostages, according to the Sunday Times.
IOHR has also been working on the case of a young child named Salmaan. Salmaan is the grandson of Ashfaq Khurshid. Ashfaq lost his son Haroon who was fighting with militant groups in Syria. Ashfaq’s grandchild Salmaan is currently with his Canadian mother, and last communicated with them over a month ago. Their whereabouts is unknown at the moment.
Other cases in Europe include that of Fatiha Lakjaa. Fatiha is a Belgian citizen and the grandmother of 6 children, who are currently stuck in Syria with no clear way of coming home. The Belgian government won an appeal last week concluding that it no longer has an obligation to bring the mothers or the kids back.
Philip Lee, conservative MP for Bracknell, who notoriously resigned his role due to the chaos of Brexit, urged the home secretary Sajid Javid to change his approach and allow the wives of I.S and other military group-members and their children to be brought back to the UK. He added that the UK should not be exporting the problem.
Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary commented on the death of Shamima Begum’s newborn child and called his death a “stain on the conscience of this government”.
IOHR will be holding a panel on 14 March in London that will bring together families of British and European children to share their first-hand experiences of trying to get the children back to safety.