Mon, 15 April 2024

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We must bring British children trapped in Syrian camps home before it is too late

4 min read

Government inaction has left British children stranded in Syrian detainment camps. The Foreign Office has a moral obligation to bring them home before it’s too late, writes Stephen Gethins MP

British children are trapped in Syrian detainment camps. The sentence feels incongruous. Surely we would not tolerate such a thing. Yet here we are, with the media reporting three such British children have been orphaned, and agencies on the ground reporting at least 57 others are in North East Syria, all trapped in camps. 

More than 300 children have died in, or on their way to, these camps.

For the children who remain, the opportunity to have a regular life, or even to access basic services, is completely non-existent. No future whatsoever for a child. 

With Donald Trump’s disastrous and destabilising move to withdraw US troops in the region, the subsequent Turkish invasion, the retreat of our Kurdish allies and the advance of Assad, what had been an appalling situation has become one of dire urgency.

British children are trapped in inhumane conditions in a conflict-stricken country, with winter and war are closing in around them. The Government is not moving nearly fast enough: it is time to bring these children and their mothers home. 

While the Government’s offer to investigate repatriating orphaned and unaccompanied children is welcome, it is only a solution for 5% of the children there for whom it has a duty of care.
The FCO has claimed that all British citizens can be assisted once they access consular services. Yet there are no consulates in Syria; even if there were, the children are detained in guarded camps, and the Kurdish authorities will not let them leave without the UK facilitating the transfer. 

The result is that access to consular support is only possible if the UK gets these children out of Syria, but the Government says it can only get them out of Syria with consular support. We must break this bind. 

And to those who point to security concerns, I would simply say that half of these children are likely to be under four years old. The majority are under twelve. As for the mothers, no doubt some will need to face justice. That is right – but children should not pay for their parents’ wrongdoing. 

Due to months of inaction, it is now impossible to make a safe assessment in the camps themselves. As mother and child must not be separated, it is only through urgent repatriation of both that we can ascertain what is best for these children.

The Kurdish authorities were, until the Turkish incursion, willing to ferry repatriated children to the border. We know this because 27 other countries have repatriated their children, moving swiftly to help their people. 

It is right that we put safety first, and I would never condone a process that put the lives of hard-working officials at risk. However, aid agencies are operating in and around these camps, many of which are amongst DFID’s closest partners. Other countries have made the journey from the border to the camps, through an area that is still mostly peaceful and controlled by our allies. However that could change at any minute. 

Al Hol, where the majority of the British children are held, is less than 70 miles from the Turkish border. Roj camp, where the remainder are, is within Turkey and Russia’s new area of operation – access to it may soon involve negotiating with the Russians, rather than our Kurdish allies.

I find the lack of urgency in the Government’s approach astounding. Members from all parties clearly share that opinion, as together we have demanded the Government take action.  
All children in Syria need to be protected. But the UK has a special responsibility to protect children from the UK.

Stephen Gethins is SNP MP for North East Fife and foreign affairs spokesperson

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