Some British orphans in Syria will be repatriated

A number of British orphans whose parents died in Syria are being returned to the UK, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday, amid growing concern over the fate of the children of ISIS suspects.

“These innocent, orphaned children should never have been subjected to the horrors of war,” Raab said in a statement. “We have facilitated their return home because it was the right thing to do. Now they must be allowed the privacy and given the support to return to a normal life,” he said.

The Foreign Office did not provide further details on how many children are being repatriated and the identities of their parents. However, according to a tweet from Kurdish administration official Abdulkarim Omar, three British orphans from ISIS parents were handed over to a delegation representing the British Foreign Ministry on Thursday.

Humanitarian aid organization Save The Children referenced Omar’s tweet in a statement welcoming the transfer. “Today the UK government is transforming the lives of these innocent children who have been through terrible things that are far beyond their control,” Save The Children’s head of humanitarian campaigns Alison Griffin said.

But she also warned that “as many as 60 British children” still remain in Syria, and also warrant repatriation. “All are as innocent as those rescued today and our very real fear is that they won’t all survive to see the spring. They must all be brought home before it is too late,” Griffin said.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Letta Tayler described the Raab’s repatriation announcement as a “token gesture.”

“While it’s great that the UK is allowing the return of these citizens, shame on them for waiting this long,” she told CNN. “These returns should be the UK’s first step in immediately helping to evacuate all of its citizens trapped in northeast Syria. Bringing home only a few is a token gesture.”

Pressure to repatriate foreign nationals

In October, former Brexit secretary David Davis said that around 60 British children were thought to be trapped in northeast Syria after fleeing areas formerly held by ISIS, and asked Foreign Office minister Andrew Murrison what was being done to help them.

Murrison told Parliament that the government’s priority was “unaccompanied children and orphans,” citing difficulty in accessing civilian camps. He said at the time that he hoped a ceasefire would allow the chance to help the children.

Davis responded that he welcomed the government’s pledge to repatriate orphans, but added that there remain dozens of other foreign children who are not orphans.

Turkey has repeatedly called on European nations to take back their own nationals, with Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu saying that Turkey was not a “guest house or hotel” for ISIS members to stay in indefinitely. Last week, it said it had begun the process of returning alleged foreign ISIS fighters to their home countries, including an American, a Briton, and seven Germans.

The US-backed SDF in northern Syria estimated in October that they had about 800 European fighters in their prisons, as well as another 700 women and some 1,500 children in camps, who fled ISIS-held territory when the so-called ISIS “caliphate” was crushed.

Several European governments have previously refused to accept the return of citizens suspected of ties to ISIS, or else attempted to simply revoke their citizenship. Earlier this year, then-UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid said he planned to use “all powers available” to block British fighters and supporters of terrorism from returning to the UK.

Tayler, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said it would make more sense for foreign governments to repatriate all citizens and then investigate any suspects, rather than “leaving them in Turkish custody, where they could face torture or other inhuman treatment, or in war-wracked northeast Syria, where any hardcore Isis members among them could escape and regroup amid the chaos of war.”

“As for the children, they are first and foremost victims,” she added. “Nearly all of these children did not choose to live or be born under Isis and they should not be blamed for that crimes or errors of their parents.”