UN special rapporteurs slam failure to repatriate families from Syrian camps

October 12, 2020

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Two UN special rapporteurs have slammed the failure of governments – which include those of the UK and Sweden – to repatriate their nationals from detention camps in North East Syria, calling repatriation the “only international-law compliant response” and highlighting the particular vulnerability of women and girls in the camps.

On September 28th, the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and on arbitrary, summary and extra-judicial executions submitted an amicus curiae brief in a case before the European Court of Human Rights. The case was brought by the parents of a French woman – who, along with her young children, is currently held in the camps – challenging the French government’s refusal to repatriate their daughter and grandchildren.

The UN special rapporteurs draw attention to:

the fundamentally discriminatory nature of returns on a “case by case” basis in the case of children. Where returns are feasible, all children should be repatriated without qualification or exception, and in line with other fundamental aspects of child protection, including the fundamental right to a child’s family life, to not be arbitrarily separated from their parents and to maintain contact with their parents…”

Reprieve estimates that there are between 15 and 20 family units in the camps, and the British government is currently refusing to repatriate them. Last year they appeared to have walked back their opposition to the families being sent to Assad-controlled Syria. It was recently reported that the Swedish government has officials in the camps telling mothers that their children can be repatriated if they agree to be separated from them and left behind in the camps.

In their brief, the Special Rapporteurs also draw attention to the particular vulnerability of women and girls in the camps:

“Turning to the situation of women and girls deprived of their liberty in the camps, the Special Rapporteurs are particularly mindful of the critical need to understand that women’s and girls’ association with terrorist groups can be highly complex, notably regarding the distinction between victims and perpetrators. States must be mindful of the potential for coercion, co-option, enslavement, sexual exploitation and harm on joining or being associated with non-state armed groups, on-line grooming and recruitment for marriage, sexual or household services or labour for the organization…Maternal responsibilities should on their own never qualify as ‘material support’ to terrorism.”

Earlier this year, a group of Conservative MPs included the fact that many British women in the camps were trafficked or coerced into travelling to Syria, in a letter urging the British government to repatriate mothers and children. Richard Barrett, a former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6 has advocated strongly for bringing British families back to the UK.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s Director, said: “How many more experts must criticise inaction before the UK government will listen? Many of these women are victims of serial abuse. Targeted because of their vulnerability, trafficked into Syria by coercive men, and now their own government has abandoned them. The government must urgently bring them back to the UK, with their children, and if there are charges to answer they must be dealt with by the British justice system.”

ENDS