Skip to main content

UK Citizens Returning From Fighting Daesh

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate, and to so many right hon. and hon. Members for expressing an interest in it. I am particularly honoured that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) will respond to the debate for the Government. I know that the nation sleeps more soundly and sweetly in the knowledge that he is our Minister for Security.

This question is not a new one. We have grappled with how to view and respond to our fellow citizens who go abroad to fight in foreign wars. They did so not for money, as mercenaries, but because they believed that was the right thing to do, and they joined the side of the conflict that at least ostensibly—and certainly, for those unversed in the complexities of an individual conflict—held widespread public support. That side was viewed by many, perhaps at times the majority, as the right side, or as, in one way or another, Britain’s ally. Some 50,000 English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fought in the American civil war, and several thousand fought in the Spanish civil war, as was memorialised by George Orwell. More recently, dozens of British volunteers joined Croatian units during the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1995.

After the experience of the American civil war, Parliament passed the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870, which prevents Britons from enlisting in a foreign army that is at war with a state currently at peace with the United Kingdom. However, that Act has never been properly enforced. It was, and it remains to this day, extremely difficult to monitor and to prosecute such an offence. Those returning from the Spanish civil war frequently expected to be given a hero’s welcome; in fact, they were invariably treated with suspicion by the police. They faced workplace discrimination, and many were even prevented from enlisting during the second world war.

Today, many—perhaps hundreds; I do not have an authoritative estimate, but perhaps the Minister will give us one in a moment—British citizens have travelled to northern Iraq, and from there into Syria. They have trained with Kurdish forces and militias and, ultimately, fought on the frontline against Daesh, in some cases in the fiercest fighting that there has been in this conflict, at Sinjar and Kobane.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate about a very interesting issue. Many people who went to the middle east to fight on the allied side—the side that the Government are supporting—checked with their own police forces and Government officials to let them know that they were going, and they were allowed to go, but when they returned, some were arrested, questioned and detained. Is there not something wrong when someone checks to see whether it is all right to go but then is arrested on their return? Why should that be?

The hon. Gentleman gets to the point of the debate and I will return to that issue in a moment. The Government and the country need a clear and consistent policy. If we let individuals go, why should we arrest them for terrorism on their return?

I applaud my hon. Friend for securing this debate. The opposite happened in my constituency. Anthony Harrison, a constituent, went to Iraq and fought with the Kurdish YPG forces. When he returned to Heathrow, he expected to be stopped, but was not. He then went back to Gillingham and self-referred to the police. The first duty of the state is to protect its citizens. We should be checking those individuals who have gone out and come back, otherwise there is a real risk to our national security.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. Whichever side of the argument we take—whether we are supporters of these individuals or have reservations—their stories suggest that there is no clear policy. Those stories do not give us great confidence in our border controls, as different individuals have clearly been treated in different ways.

A growing number of individuals have been profiled in the media. Some have even been on more than one tour, as it were. I have been in contact with 20 families, some of whom I will refer to this evening, including that of one of my own constituents, Aiden Aslin. Two Britons and an Irishman were arrested this weekend crossing back from Syria into northern Iraq, so this remains a topical issue. At least one British citizen, a former marine, Konstandinos Erik Scurfield from Barnsley, has been killed in action. The Foreign Office says that owing to the difficulties and the lack of consular services in the area, it is difficult to estimate whether more British citizens have been killed in action and what may have become of their bodies.

Behind every one of those individuals is a family. I have been in regular contact with my constituent Aiden’s mother, Angela, and his grandmother, Pamela, throughout his 10 months abroad. I cannot overstate their concern and anguish. Their initial thought was that one day they would turn on the television and see their son and grandson in an orange jacket. In their case, at least, there is also acceptance that their son and grandson took this extraordinary decision freely, in sound mind and good faith, because he could not continue to watch the atrocities on the television every night and turn a blind eye. I would not dare to generalise about the motives of all who have gone out there, but I have now met several, and they are brave and good people who deserve our respect and fair treatment under the law.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to seek a bit of advice about the highly unusual case of a UK citizen injured fighting the forces of Daesh whom I met in a refugee camp in France. He is leading a pretty miserable existence there because he refuses to abandon his wife and baby boy who had to flee Kurdistan, but are not entitled to seek asylum in the UK. The family do not meet the minimum income requirements for spouse visas, partly because of his injuries. How can we help this courageous UK citizen who fought our common enemy, Daesh, and get him and his family out of their miserable existence in the refugee camp in Europe and back here where he belongs?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point; perhaps the Minister will respond to it later in the debate. I am pleased that other hon. Members have come across individuals who are in the same circumstances as people I have met.

These individuals are entering an exceptionally dangerous situation, and many are not at all prepared or suitable for these conflict zones. Some of the militias with which they wittingly or unwittingly become involved divide opinion sharply, and it is difficult for the layperson to navigate their record and legal status in the United Kingdom. Some of the groups have been accused of war crimes or association with terrorism. The diplomatic situation is complex, and things are becoming increasingly hostile towards those who are enlisting in Iraq and Turkey. It is exceptionally difficult to understand what citizens have done while in the field and who they have associated with, or to predict with complete confidence how they will behave on their return.

I start with the premise that although we acknowledge people’s bravery and seek fair and appropriate treatment, we should as far as possible discourage and inhibit British citizens from going out in the first place, particularly if we plan to arrest some of them under the Terrorism Act 2000 when they return. Several militias operate in the region, but the principal group recruiting British citizens that I have come across is the YPG, or its foreign fighters organisation, the Lions of Rojava, which has a Facebook account and is easily contactable online.

My constituent, who had no prior knowledge of the region, was able to carry out a Google search, to make contact and to organise his travel at low cost and with great ease. As far as I know—perhaps the Minister will comment on this—the Home Office and internet providers have made no effort to close down such sites as they might for those that encourage the recruitment of British citizens to fight on the other side. Many of those recruited are making rational choices, and it is not my intention to imply otherwise or discredit them, but there is clear evidence that some are far less equipped than others to make these decisions, such as a 19-year-old man who previously worked as a florist in Manchester and had never left the United Kingdom in his life, a young man with Asperger’s, and a British citizen who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and had previously tried to take his own life three times. Journalists in the field to whom I have spoken have reported being contacted on numerous occasions by former servicemen who are asking for ways to return to Iraq to finish the job and to support the Iraqi and Syrian people, particularly in the name of their fallen comrades who gave their lives in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this excellent debate, and he is right that we must try to prevent people from going out there in the first place. What more does he think that internet companies should do to bring down these sites as soon as possible? At the moment, the referral process takes too long.

I completely concur with the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. It is important that Facebook and others take down not only sites that are actively recruiting British citizens to fight for IS, but sites that might be preying on naive and vulnerable Britons who, in their eyes, have decided to do the right thing, but are none the less getting themselves into grave danger.

Some of those individuals, particularly ex-servicemen and women, would be advised not to go to the conflict zone. Few questions are asked by the recruiters and no military experience is required. Health is never checked, and many if not most people arrive at airports such as Sulaymaniyah completely in the dark about what they should expect. They could be kidnapped and held to ransom—who knows?

My hon. Friend says that health is never checked when people go out, but given the trauma that people may have suffered on the battlefield, their state of mind needs to be checked when they come back if we are to consider security, because such people may inadvertently get drawn into other criminal activity.

The short answer is that very little support is offered to returning individuals. Indeed, my research suggests that the vast majority of people are not even questioned by the police or security services on their return.

Many people going out have little knowledge of the principal militias such as the YPG. My purpose tonight is not to besmirch the YPG, but to point out that it divides opinion and that many if not most Britons who go out have no real knowledge of that group or the accusations against it. Amnesty International has accused the YPG of war crimes.

The Turkish Government believe, rightly or wrongly, that this is an offshoot of the PKK, which is of course a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and the USA. Recent reports suggest that some foreign fighters have left the YPG in the field because of its views and joined other even more obscure militias such as the so-called “self-sacrifice” group, which operates in the Nineveh region.

The hon. Gentleman should be congratulated on securing this debate. Having said that, I have been listening to what he has been saying and I wonder how he would regard ex-British servicemen who fight alongside the Kurds? Is it not an interesting question to ask what happens to them when they return?

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, showing the complexity of the situation. As I understand it, the Kurdish army, the peshmerga, has said that, as a result of direct representations by the US Government, it is no longer recruiting foreign fighters, but militias are different and continue to recruit foreign volunteers. Some of these groups use a language of martyrdom that is not altogether dissimilar from that of the people they are fighting against, which certainly makes me extremely uncomfortable.

The position of British citizens in the field has become even more complex recently because it appears that Turkey has applied pressure on Iraq to take action against the YPG and foreign fighters because of its links to the PKK and the Kurds. The two Britons and an Irishman arrested over the weekend were detained by the Iraqi Government due to “visa irregularities”, which seems a fairly spurious reason for arrest, given that there is no working Iraqi-Syrian border. It none the less suggests that, given our limited consular services in northern Iraq, British citizens are getting themselves into a complex and dangerous situation. British citizens should be discouraged from going out. The sites should be taken down and the Government should, behind the scenes, persuade the Kurdish authorities to keep British citizens out of the conflict. The peshmerga are no longer accepting foreign volunteers, as I say, but the militias certainly are.

Why are individuals not being prevented from travelling when they openly inform officers of their intentions at the airport, as my constituent did, when these immigration and security officials should surely know that these individuals are likely to be arrested on their return? If British citizens are to be arrested under the Terrorism Act, why are we waving them through immigration and on to their planes? That is perverse and unjust to those individuals.

Let me turn briefly to how we treat these individuals on their return. Of the 20 I have spoken with or their families, two were arrested under the Terrorism Act; four were questioned, but not arrested; 14 came and went at will, unquestioned, three of whom have been on a second or third tour of duty overseas. That does not give me a great deal of confidence in our border controls.

My hon. Friend talks about people being stopped and questioned by the police. I have a letter here from the Minister in the other place who is responsible for tackling extremism, which states that the stopping and questioning of these individuals is an operational matter for the police, but surely we need guidance for each case from the Government rather than having issue after issue being looked at by the police.

I could not agree more.

I do not know whether this is a representative sample, so perhaps the Minister will tell us in his remarks how many British citizens have been arrested in these circumstances, but it is clear that there is not a consistent approach. Much, as my hon. Friend has just said, is left to individual police forces. My own police force in Nottinghamshire arrested my constituent on his plane and took him for brief questioning, yet he has awaited news of whether he is to be charged for the past 12 weeks. The outcome has now been postponed once again. I am told that the Crown Prosecution Service has not been given the file or been asked for its advice.

Do police forces know how to handle this situation? Some treat these individuals and their families in exactly the same way and in the same circumstances as they would for those fighting for Daesh, which is particularly rough on the families and loved ones, whose homes are searched and computers taken while neighbours watch on through twitching curtains. Others may well chose not to get involved as some individuals have been in the press, but are never troubled by the police.

Clearly, individuals need to be questioned; we need to understand what they have done. I can appreciate, as the Minister may argue, that a single mistake or an individual wrongly assumed to be fighting on the other side who then returns home and commits a terrorist act, is a risk that we cannot bear. However, I suggest that we should exercise caution before arresting individuals, because that will remain on their records for the rest of their lives. If we do arrest them, it should be done consistently, and police forces should be equipped with guidance so that people like my constituent are not left in limbo for months and months while they decide what to do.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate that has proved quite interesting to me. He has described the complexity of a situation in which different militia groups—different forces—are fighting Daesh. Does he agree that guidance is needed because the task of any immigration or police officer who is presented with a case of this kind is to investigate crime rather than looking into international affairs?

That is absolutely true. This is an unenviable task for anyone who is involved in such investigations.

I do not pretend to have the answers, but let me draw the attention of the House and the Minister to an issue that I think needs careful thought. Given the existence of social media and cheap international flights, it has never been easier for individuals to make contact, to be recruited, and to travel to conflict zones. It might be thought that in this modern age when we are all mollycoddled, people would not dream of doing something of this kind, but people are doing it, and it is becoming easier and easier to do.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential for the Government and law enforcement agencies to send the clear, consistent and credible message that those who decide to go abroad and risk their lives run a very real risk of prosecution when they return? Would that not constitute a powerful disincentive?

I could not agree more.

Most of these individuals—certainly most of those whom I have met—are doing this for what they believe to be good reasons. Most are braver men and women than you or I. However, doing this carries great risks, beyond the risk of being killed, captured or ransomed: the risks involved in being caught fighting with a group that is viewed by some as a terrorist organisation. Even if it is not, people will still be arrested, and that will remain on their records for the rest of their lives.

The Government need a considered and consistent policy, which they do not appear to have today. They need a policy that discourages British citizens from taking such risks, which ensures that, whenever possible, they are advised of their likely legal status on their return, and which, above all, treats these brave men fairly and appropriately when they do come home.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on securing an interesting and informative debate on a topic that has been unfairly overlooked during our discussions about the conflict in Syria and Iraq. As you might expect, Mr Speaker, I have a prepared speech, and I shall refer to it sporadically, but I want to tailor my remarks to the issues that have been raised in the debate. I sense the shivers that are going down the spines of Home Office officials as I utter those words.

My hon. Friend made an emphatic case for why we should broadcast clearly and powerfully that travelling abroad in uncertain circumstances such as those that he has described is extremely dangerous. There are three reasons for that. First, the cause that people go to support is often not what it is purported to be in the propaganda that has encouraged them to do so. Secondly, as my hon. Friend suggested, those people may well not return. They may be placed in extremely jeopardous situations, even if they are going abroad to offer help. They may not know that they are going to fight—to engage in conflict—but they will nevertheless be placing themselves in extreme danger, almost regardless of their original purpose. Thirdly, on their return they may well face prosecution and will certainly face arrest. Extra-territorial jurisdiction applies in many of the places to which they might travel—particularly, as in this case, Syria. It is entirely possible that they have committed crimes abroad that are subject to that jurisdiction, and can be tried in a court here in the United Kingdom. That is another fact that is not made known to them when they are recruited. So my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, first and foremost, we should send out the extremely clear message that if people travel to a dangerous place, they will put themselves in all kinds of jeopardy.

There is a history of people volunteering to go abroad in this way—for example, during the Spanish civil war and other wars since then. Do the Home Office and the Cabinet Office view such people technically as mercenaries?

As I have implied, these matters have to be gauged on a case-by-case basis, because people travel abroad for humanitarian reasons and all kinds of other reasons. In the first tranche of people travelling to Syria, many went with good intentions and to do good work. They went to help. The pattern of travel to Syria has changed over time, but I would certainly not want to make any general assumptions about why an individual went or what they did when they got there. However, it is almost universally true to say that they place themselves at considerable risk. If people want to offer humanitarian help, it is much better to do that in a more organised way than in a dilettante fashion. People can contribute in all sorts of ways to the humanitarian effort in which the Government are playing a powerful part without putting themselves at risk. There are things that they can do to help.

Part of the reason behind the advice that was offered by my hon. Friend in his impressive speech, and which I have amplified, is that some of the organisations that people might join—ostensibly for the good and noble purposes that he described—might themselves be proscribed. Some of the organisations fighting Daesh are themselves proscribed and might be engaged in activities that we neither endorse nor support. The picture is often more complicated than is portrayed when people are recruited.

Many of those people are recruited through the internet. It will not have missed your consideration, Mr Speaker—little does—that people communicate in all kinds of modern technological ways these days. Much of the propaganda that is now emanating from Daesh uses the most modern methods of communication. We often think of Daesh as brutally archaic, which is understandable given its means and its methods. Indeed, it is often suggested that it is an organisation from times past. However, its technological methodology is extremely up to date. It takes advantage of every kind of social media and it uses the internet regularly in a well-organised and sophisticated way. That is precisely why its message is seductive to its adherents and apologists here in the United Kingdom.

The Minister is absolutely right to suggest that we are dealing with a very sophisticated enemy. May I take him back to the point made by the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) about border checks? We still do not have 100% border checks, because our passports are not viewed by immigration officers on departure. They are looked at, together with our boarding cards, by the travel agents, but we are not checked on departure. The hon. Gentleman is calling for better checks at the border, with our passports being looked at by immigration officers and swiped before departure. That does not happen at the moment.

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee takes a keen interest in all such matters. What I will say to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark is that it seems that if people have notified the local police that they may go, which is what he said, and then no more has been done for the reasons that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) suggested, that does not seem satisfactory. It certainly seems reasonable that if people have notified the police that they are going to travel—although it is of course for the police to make a case-by-case judgment on an operational basis—we need at least to be confident that the police have the right guidance on what is appropriate. I am certainly happy to take that suggestion back to the Home Office and to see what more can be done, if anything, to ensure that the advice to different police forces around the country is consistent. As I say, these are, in the end, operational matters, and this has to be gauged on a case-by-case basis, but my hon. Friend the Member for Newark makes an important point none the less.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous in taking interventions. Following his comment about briefing police forces around the country, I urge him to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is included. People can leave the UK on British passports, go out to help in Syria, become radicalised and then come back, perfectly lawfully, to Dublin or Shannon airports. The border between the Republic of Ireland and South Armagh is entirely porous, so British passport holders can re-enter the UK through Northern Ireland without any border checks.

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable case. There is a robust system in place for missing persons to be identified, for example, by the Turkish police on the Syrian border. We spend a great deal of time considering the issue of people returning from Syria, because some of them will subsequently be subjects of interest to our intelligence services and to law enforcement. However, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark was making was that if someone has said to the police, “I’m going,” do different forces apply the same policy consistently? It is a reasonable point, which is why I have committed to considering it in more detail and to looking at the guidance.

This House took a majority decision to support bombing attacks in Syria and Iraq. Those who watched those debates would assume that the bombing would be in support of the 70,000 allied forces and supporters who were trying to fight Daesh on the ground. That was the whole purpose of the House’s decision. Anyone watching that debate who wanted to support the factions fighting Daesh would feel, when they spoke to the police, that this House was already fighting a war, and that they were doing nothing wrong. Does the Minister understand that that is the issue put forward by the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)? There are two different groups: those who are fighting Daesh, and those who support Daesh.

I am saying to the hon. Gentleman that someone might think that they are going out for what might be the perfectly noble cause of fighting our common enemy, but there is always a great deal of uncertainty about what happens when they get there. Such people are by their nature often quite ignorant of what they will encounter and may become linked to, tied to, or involved in all kinds of organisations and groups, some of which are proscribed in this country and engage in all kinds of other activities as well as the battle against Daesh. This is a complicated issue and should not be presented as anything else, although I understand the hon. Gentleman’s sympathy.

The Minister will agree that both categories of individuals—those who go to fight Daesh and those who support Daesh—are of concern. Around 800 individuals are fighting with Daesh. Do the Government or the Minister have an estimate of the number of individuals out there fighting against Daesh? Both groups should be on our intelligence services’ radar.

We know roughly the number of people who have travelled to Syria, some of whom initially went for humanitarian reasons. Many have returned, but some have been killed. As both my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, all those who go also face the risk of being captured and used as hostages. The strong advice is, “Don’t go, because you don’t know what you are going to encounter. And you certainly don’t know what the consequences may be.” That is precisely the point my hon. Friend the Member for Newark made in his opening remarks, and it is an important signal to send out from this place.

I would not want to suggest that the Government are inactive in this respect, so let me deal with what we are doing. The work we are doing on providing humanitarian aid is well documented. We have pledged more than £2.3 billion in vital life-saving assistance to Syria, and this is our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis. We remain one of the largest donors to the Syrian crisis response internationally. Of course it is important also to emphasise that those engaged in terrorism blight lives, provide bogus legitimacy to the worst extremes of human behaviour and tear communities apart. This activity cannot ever be justified, and it will never be justified by this Government, wherever it takes place or whoever commits it. I also understand the desire to confront our enemies, but the struggle for what is right is not, and cannot be, left to individuals; it can be devised and delivered only through the proper exercise of Government authority.

The second point I wish to make is that we are, of course, part of a military response to the threat posed by Daesh; the UK is making a strong military contribution. RAF Typhoon, Tornado and Reaper aircraft have flown more than 2,000 combat missions, and about 1,000 UK personnel are supporting their operation in the wider region. Our aircraft also provide effective close air support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces taking the fight to Daesh on the ground, with recent successes coming in Ramadi and Sinjar. It is through the global coalition, to which we are making such a significant contribution, that we will defeat Daesh. Although it is understandable that individuals should want to add to that, their effort is better expended in supporting what we are trying to do as a nation to get this right, both militarily and in humanitarian terms.

This is also about challenging the propaganda that I have mentioned, as has the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. Challenging that, in communities up and down our nation, is a job for all of us. If people want to fight Daesh, they can do that on the streets of our capital city, London, and in cities and towns across this kingdom. All of us have a job to do in countering that poisonous narrative, which is delivered partly, but not only, through the internet. That is why the Government have invested so much in the Prevent programme and in our Channel programme, which deals specifically with people at risk of radicalisation.

We introduced a Prevent duty for a range of public bodies, including schools, prisons, local authorities and health services. This communal task of challenging the narrative is ongoing. It is highly dynamic, for the very reason that the threat we face is dynamic, and that requires us to redouble our efforts. I say to individuals who want to take on Daesh that there is a job to do in all those ways. For example, we take 1,800 pieces of terrorist propaganda down from the internet not every year or every month, but every week. That task is vital, as is supporting those community organisations and others that are putting forward the counter-narrative. These are important pieces of work, because the effect on individuals, particularly young people, who are corrupted by that poisonous narrative could not be more devastating.

Of course young people are targeted, because they are particularly vulnerable. They are susceptible to the kind of propaganda that I have described. It is important to know that last year alone, we referred 2,000 young people to our Channel programme, because they were vulnerable to that kind of radicalisation. In some cases, no further work was needed, but in others, intervention by social services was required. More than 200 such young people received support through that Channel programme.

At the end of last year, I saw at first hand, in Portsmouth, Hackney and elsewhere, the work that was done by our Prevent co-ordinators. I have met many of those who are on the frontline of this battle, and that is the frontline on which I want people to fight. I am talking about working in this country, taking on those who wish to corrupt our young people. This is no less than a safeguarding issue. The methods used by those who want to radicalise young people are not dissimilar to those of other kinds of exploitation. There is often a grooming process, which may take place face to face or online. It is often about picking on those young people who are particularly disadvantaged in some way. It is certainly about turning them from the cause of virtue to the cause of wickedness.

There should be no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark has done a service to this House by drawing our attention to the matters that we have debated briefly tonight. I end with this thought, which I hope he will broadcast to the people of Newark and elsewhere. If anyone should be in any doubt, let it be dispelled tonight: this Government and this Minister can outmatch our enemies in respect of our certainty, our determination and our commitment to winning this battle for the very heart and soul of all we are as a people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.