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British Children: Syria

Volume 666: debated on Tuesday 22 October 2019

To ask the Secretary of State if he will make a statement on the Government’s policy on 60 British children trapped in north-east Syria.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. This is, of course, a dreadful situation. Innocent minors trapped in north-east Syria are, without doubt, vulnerable. All these cases must be approached with care and compassion. We are aware that British nationals, including children, are living in displaced persons’ camps in Syria, but, owing to the circumstances on the ground, we are not in a position to make an accurate estimate of the number.

The safety and security of British nationals abroad is a priority for the Foreign Office, although UK travel advice has consistently advised against all travel to Syria since 2011. Although the UK has no consular presence in Syria from which to provide assistance, we will do all we can for unaccompanied minors and orphans.

The Foreign Secretary made it clear to the House last week that the Government will try to help any British unaccompanied minors and orphans in Syria. We work with all concerned in Syria and at home to facilitate the return of unaccompanied or orphan children where feasible. Each case is considered on an individual basis.

The situation in north-east Syria is fragile, but we will continue to work with international partners to secure stability in the region, to ensure that the considerable gains made against Daesh are not undermined, and to bring humanity and compassion to a deeply troubled and traumatised region.

I thank the Minister for his compassionate tone and for what he had to say. Last Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary made the commitment to look at whether orphans and unaccompanied minors in north-east Syria could be repatriated to Britain. I welcome that commitment, but I am afraid that it does not go far enough. Save the Children has now confirmed that, of the 60 children in the region, only three are orphans. The children who have not been orphaned still deserve the United Kingdom’s protection. These children are at the heart of an unfolding geopolitical disaster in Syria. Many of them under the age of five have been born of parents who made a grotesquely misguided and irresponsible decision to go to Syria. The children are there through absolutely no fault of their own. They should not be punished for their parents’ mistakes. They have lived through some of the most brutal and inhumane fighting in modern times. Some have witnessed beheadings and other appalling acts of brutality, and others are suffering from terrible physical and psychological damage.

Some of our international allies have already used the five-day ceasefire to fulfil their duties and repatriate their own children. If we do not do the same, British children would be left at the whim of a brutal dictator, of a terrorist organisation or of roving bands of militia. If we do nothing, we will be abandoning our moral obligations and risking those vulnerable children growing up in a war-torn area and perhaps turning into terrorists themselves. The time to act, Minister, is now.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the urgent question and on making his case within time. He is in danger of being an exception.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his points. He is right to say that the UK Government’s approach to this is, I hope, informed by compassion and care for individual cases. Our priority clearly has to be unaccompanied children and orphans, and that is where our attention currently is.

My right hon. Friend has given me a figure—I have to say that I do not recognise that figure—although, of course, we are talking to all the agencies and to those with an influence on the ground, to better understand the situation, and, of course, we will do all we can. The situation is fast-moving, and getting access to camps and people is extremely difficult. The ceasefire that he has spoken of is due to expire tonight, but we hope that it will be sustained. Under those circumstances, of course, all things become possible.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing it. His contribution was powerful and it was right. I entirely share his concerns about the dozens of innocent children—many just infants—who are legally British citizens and who find themselves, through no fault of their own, caught up in the latest upsurge in violence around the Daesh detention camps in northern Syria, triggered by the unilateral withdrawal of US troops and the subsequent invasion of the region by Turkey and its mercenary militias. The reckless and treacherous actions of the Trump Administration were always going to have human consequences, including the increased endangerment of the innocent British children living in the detention camps, nearly all of whom have already experienced—as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden says—huge physical and psychological traumas in their lives because of what they have seen and the conditions in which they have grown up.

It is all very well for some to say that the sins of the father, and in many cases the mother, should be visited on the children, but that is not who we are as a country or a people. Instead, we have a moral and a civic duty to ensure that these British children are brought back to the UK to receive the shelter, care and counselling they need, even if that necessitates bringing back their mothers to face justice in our courts for the crimes they may have committed. If the Minister of State agrees with that, as I hope that he does, I must ask another difficult question, and one with which we need to wrestle.

If we were having this discussion two months ago, we would have been talking about negotiating the repatriation of these children with our Kurdish and American allies. Now, as a result of Donald Trump’s actions, that negotiation will need to involve Assad’s regime, Russia and what are now their Kurdish allies. So I ask the Minister of State, unpalatable as it may be, does the Foreign Office believe that to achieve the repatriation of these children, it will be necessary to restore formal diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, and will that be on a permanent or a temporary basis?

I completely distance myself from the phrase “sins of the father”. There is no question about this. These are innocent minors; they are vulnerable people and we must do what we can for them. It is entirely wrong to associate them with what their parents may have done. Indeed, we need to ensure—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) made very clear in his question—that the cycle does not continue. That is fully understood.

The shadow Secretary of State touched on the legal position of minors who are living in camps with their parents. That brings us to a very difficult area indeed. I am sure that she would not want to trespass too far in that regard, nor would she want to remove children from their parents.

We have been clear about our attitude towards the Assad regime. As the right hon. Lady will be very well aware, the reality is that the Assad regime appears to have permeated most corners of the country now, and we have to think about what that means if we are to pursue our humanitarian goals. I think that most western countries—the telephone conversation I had with the global coalition against Daesh yesterday would certainly indicate this—are trying to work out what we now do when it comes to operating in the new reality, which sadly has been made a great deal worse by the events of the past few days.

May I just pin the Minister down on two key points? First, do the Government accept in principle that these children should be repatriated and are a British responsibility? Secondly, do they accept that, subject to not putting British officials in harm’s way, such repatriation could and should take place, possibly with the help of UNICEF?

I thank my right hon. Friend. Certainly we would want to work with agencies. If he will forgive me, I am not going to specify which agencies. He will know, as he has been Secretary of State in the relevant Department, why we do not want to specify which particular partners we are working with in this instance. On the protection of our own people, we are not going to put civil servants at risk in this. That would be unreasonable. We have a duty of care towards them.

In terms of repatriation in principle, I think my right hon. Friend is tempting me to make commitments in a piece that is fast-moving. I would refer to the point I made in response to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) about the legality of this and the separation of family members. It would be wrong in principle to separate family members, but, as I said in my opening remarks, we consider each case on its merits. These are all individual cases, and it would be very wrong to give a blanket assessment of the position that the Government would take.

I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing this incredibly important urgent question. I also pay tribute to the aid agencies working in some extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

One of the most chilling briefings I have ever received came in at the weekend, when I read that children—small children—have died on their way to and in the camps from hypothermia, pneumonia, dehydration or complications from malnutrition and illness. Winter and war are closing in on these children at the moment. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) raised a very good point. Does the UK take responsibility for British children? Can the Minister answer that in terms of the principle?

What discussions has the Minister had with the states that have been able to evacuate children already, and why has the UK not done so? What lessons has he learned? When I raised this with the Foreign Secretary previously, he talked about security considerations. Will the Minister disregard security considerations around children who are about five or six years old, and will he set out the plans to bring these children home?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who puts his points in his usual effective and forceful way. It is right to point out that the UK has been right at the forefront of applying international development funding to the dire situation in north-east Syria. We are right at the top of the league table, and it is important to say that. Particularly as winter approaches, it is of vital importance that the British public know that their money is being spent to alleviate as far as they possibly can this dire humanitarian situation.

I am not going to be drawn on other countries, because it is invidious to make comparisons. It is very easy just to pluck out a couple of countries from the air and say that we are not doing as well as X or Y. Let me be clear: we are doing what we can, given the difficult circumstances on the ground, and of course within the rule of law, for vulnerable children in north-east Syria. This is a piece that is rapidly developing and rapidly changing, and of course we keep all things under review. I hope that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

I declare my interest both as an expert witness in the defence of John Letts and Sally Lane in respect of the non-provision of consular services in the region—evidence that was unchallenged by the prosecution—and in respect of a visit to the region with three parliamentary colleagues with the all-party parliamentary group on Rojava five weeks ago. In al-Hawl camp, we were told that there were 16 British families there. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that every single day we delay in bringing these children home is an extra day of trauma that we are going to have to address at great expense in the United Kingdom. We must take up our responsibilities both to the children and to ourselves in order to protect our future security.

Yes, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s first-hand experience in Syria and the efforts he has made to better understand what is going on. The situation in north-east Syria is difficult and unpredictable. We have a ceasefire at the moment, and I hope it endures. If that ceasefire does hold tonight into tomorrow and into the future, the situation becomes much more permissive in terms of trying to deliver assistance where it is necessary and also in dealing with the cases that he has referred to, particularly the orphaned children—the unaccompanied minors—who are deeply vulnerable. I entirely agree with him that with every day that goes past means these children potentially getting even more deeply disadvantaged. I want this resolved. At the moment, we are working with agencies to do what we can. In the event that the ceasefire holds, I think that things will hopefully move a lot more rapidly and we will be able to do more.

But surely now, with a ceasefire and a lull in the fighting, is the perfect time to facilitate repatriation—to get them out. Will the Minister tell us what numbers he is talking about? We do not want the wool pulled over our eyes yet again. I understand that only three of the children are orphans out of the 60 who are from British families. What numbers are we talking about precisely? We do not want just three children taken out; we want all 60 taken out, and their mothers.

I thank the right hon. Lady, who has taken a very long-term interest in this. I would diverge from the pretext of her question, which is that we have not been doing anything; I can tell her, though I am not going to be drawn on the detail, that actually we have, over the past four days. The ceasefire finishes tonight. I hope that it endures, in which case things become a lot more permissive—a lot easier. We hope that that will be the case. I am sorry to disappoint her, but I am not going to be drawn on precise numbers. I do not recognise the figure that was given earlier on. I do respect the authority that has produced it, but I cannot confirm a number anywhere in that region. I also, I am afraid, do not want to be drawn in this forum on the three precise cases that she referred to. She will understand that we are actively trying to do what we can for them, and I do not want to say something at the Dispatch Box that might prejudice what we do in-country. However, I am perfectly happy to have a conversation with her in private.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for this urgent question. I very much sympathise with my right hon. Friend the Minister in dealing with it, because he, with the Foreign Secretary, has a responsibility in this House to work out the practicalities of the respective duties of care of those he would send to rescue those who are trapped in this situation abroad with their needs and everything else. However, sometimes the sheer practicality of difficulties can mask a failure in government to make the decisions they need to make. This is particularly about the mothers of the children. It has seemed to me over a period of time that we have to recognise an international responsibility to take back even those who have been indoctrinated and radicalised in order to protect the children, and that we should have the resources to be able to deal with them, as well as to protect the children, who are the only innocents, by and large, in this situation. Can he reassure me that there is in government now a clear decision being made with the Home Office to bring people back, as they should be cared for here?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He will know that we are currently trying to better understand the situation in al-Hawl, in particular, to try to identify those who have British nationality, their position and their wishes, and, in particular, trying to enumerate those who might be considered to be vulnerable in this piece. As I said earlier, we are approaching this on a case-by-case basis. That is genuinely the case. It is not easy, because our access is obviously imperfect. I hope very much that the ceasefire holds, and then we will be able to do more than we had perhaps been able to do up to this point.

The Minister has alluded several times to the five-day window expiring tonight. Can he outline, even in general terms, what steps he expects to take this afternoon and this evening before that expiry?

As I said, we have been working over the past several days, and indeed for some considerable time, to better understand the situation in al-Hawl camp, in particular, to satisfy ourselves that we know who is there and who we might have responsibility for in some way or another, moral or legal, to work up a plan on how to deal with that. That is irrespective of the ceasefire, but the ceasefire is important because it makes things a lot easier when we are trying to get in place a plan to assist those we think we have a duty towards.

I understand very well the ethical, legal and practical difficulties of repatriating children, especially those who are not orphans. Many of the partners we work with would not want to take a child from their parents, even in these circumstances. Surely our hand would be strengthened in being able to do the right thing if taking a child to a war zone and all the horrors that accompany it were seen as a form of child abuse. Will the Minister please ask Government lawyers to look at this to see whether we can strengthen our hand in taking children back who are not orphans, and also that we have more in our arsenal to enable us to prosecute those who have taken children overseas?

My right hon. Friend is fully familiar with all this territory. Of course, some of the children will have been born in Syria, which I think illustrates the complexity that I referred to earlier and the reason that we need to take an individual approach to each and every case. In general, of course it is absolutely right that a child should not be separated from its mother in particular. That is a strong principle that we should adhere to, but as I say, this situation is rapidly evolving and we have to consider each case individually.

The Minister has acknowledged that there is absolutely no time to lose. The current ceasefire presents a window of opportunity to move on these repatriations, but does the Minister accept that access to the two camps where the majority of UK national children are living was possible, as was repatriation, before the ceasefire and is likely to be possible for a little while afterwards? I acknowledge that he is not prepared to be drawn on the performance of other countries, but all the indications are that a number of other countries are able to get their nationals out quicker than we are managing to do. Why is that?

I am not sure I would agree entirely with what I read in The Guardian newspaper, and I would certainly disagree with the characterisation that the hon. Gentleman has portrayed. I have no evidence to suggest that the UK is in any way being dilatory in trying to return vulnerable children to the United Kingdom. That is absolutely not the case. We will continue to do what we can, and we have been very active up to this point in trying to work out the next steps. All I can do is to reassure him on that point.

While we should certainly care about the children, we should also continue to worry about some of the parents who still constitute an extreme threat to us here in the United Kingdom and from whom our armed forces have spent five years trying to protect us. Can my right hon. Friend say what work is being done in the coalition to ensure that some of those parents are not inadvertently released?

I regret that the Turkish incursion has really not helped this position, in that it is likely that some of the places in which the foreign fighters have been held will become a little more porous as a result. The early suggestion that this would mean that the doors were opened and that they would simply be released has probably been overdone—that is not our sense at the moment—but it certainly does pose a very real risk. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been absolutely right in saying that public safety must be ensured, and we would want to see those who may have committed offences brought to justice. Our view is that such cases should be tried close to the alleged crimes, and that remains our position.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on asking this urgent question and agree with every single word he has said. Can I ask the Minister what would happen in the event that we are able to repatriate these children? As has already been said, they have witnessed, seen and experienced things that no adult, never mind any child, should have to experience, and they are likely to be suffering from quite severe psychological and physical conditions. What package of support will be put in place for them in the event that we actually bring them home? They are going to need all the help they can get.

I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. He is absolutely right to say that safeguarding will be vital when these children return to the UK. He is a constituency MP, as I am, and he will understand that local social services are principally responsible for the care of vulnerable children. That will remain the case in this case. We would be working with the statutory agencies to ensure that children who are repatriated to this country and who may be traumatised in ways that most of us can barely imagine are given every care that they require. I suspect that the process will be ongoing and very lengthy.

Can the Minister clarify whether there is a legal distinction between children born in the so-called caliphate and those who have been taken there? For the avoidance of doubt, will he also clarify that the Government are talking solely about unaccompanied and orphaned children? If we are introducing an element where a parent is involved, that will open up a whole range of other possibilities and challenges.

My right hon. Friend is right to touch on the legality, which is complicated. We are clear that there are British nationals in camps in Syria who have the rights that he would expect any British national to have. If they are born to British parents, they would naturally be expected to have British nationality, just like any other child born in any other country. To deal with the distinction between unaccompanied children and others, which other Members have mentioned, our principal concern and priority must be unaccompanied and orphaned children. They are the most vulnerable, and that is where our attention chiefly is at this moment. However, I would say to my right hon. Friend, who has some experience in these matters, that this is a bigger piece of work that I hope will be made considerably easier in the event that we have a sustained ceasefire when the current ceasefire ends this evening.

Rather than dealing with children on a case-by-case basis and risking some of the parents being released and causing further mayhem, is not the solution to repatriate all UK citizens and, if any are guilty or suspected of committing offences, to put them on trial?

From my conversations with my international interlocutors yesterday, that does not appear to be the approach being taken by most countries. The Government clearly have a duty to protect the public—the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine—and that is at the forefront of our mind. In dealing with foreign terrorist fighters, our firm view is that any alleged crimes should be tried close to the scene of those alleged crimes. Justice is best served in that way, and that is what we are attempting to achieve. The hon. Gentleman has to accept that repatriating foreign terrorist fighters makes it more difficult to mount successful prosecutions and thus protect the public.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these British children are vulnerable and innocent minors, but that is the case whether they are orphaned or not, so can he explain clearly what Department for International Development-funded partners are doing to ensure that we have identified all British children who are caught up in this appalling situation and confirm that it is the Government’s objective to ensure that they have identified them? We have an obligation to them all, and our duty to them really should be clear.

We want to assist all vulnerable children; I hope I have made that very clear. The reason I said that I did not recognise a figure of 50 or 60 was not that I was trying to obfuscate from the Dispatch Box; it was because we genuinely do not know. It is are difficult to determine who they are and how many there are. This piece of work is ongoing, and I hope that a more benign situation in north-east Syria will assist in that process so that we will indeed be able to provide something like an individual service to those who are in the camps, particularly those who are most vulnerable and their family members. That is what we will seek to achieve, but my right hon. Friend’s point is well made.

The Minister has made a great deal of his hope that the ceasefire will hold, but of course it may not. How does the Foreign Office plan to respond to the end of the ceasefire in its processes for repatriating British children?

That process is not dependent on the end of the ceasefire. My point was that it is made a great deal easier in the event that the security situation on the ground is more benign and more permissive, but our work on repatriating the priority cases in particular, who have to be orphans and unaccompanied minors, will continue nevertheless.

The Minister has set out a number of the practical challenges involved in acting in this area. Can he confirm the reports that many of us have heard that a number of other countries, including some of our allies, are already in the process of repatriating children from this area of Syria? Can he also confirm whether those countries are adopting an approach similar to the one that he seems to be adopting today, of drawing a distinction between unaccompanied children and orphans and the wider body of children who may be there?

I believe that that is the case. I do not discern a dramatic difference from the approach taken by countries with which we could reasonably be compared—that is to say, the countries that we have habitually speak to in this matter. I think there is a commonality of understanding that we need to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are prioritised. That is what we are doing. My right hon. Friend refers to a process being under way. I can assure him that the UK process is under way, and it seems to be in parallel with most countries.

I trust the Minister’s integrity and honesty, and while he has been vague about the actions that are being taken, I accept his assurance that action is being taken. But the House still requires an assurance not only that the orphans who have been identified will be repatriated, but that we will look at the children who are with their mothers, because they cannot fail to have been traumatised. I suggest that the Minister look at the work of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, which has been asked by the UN and Washington to put together a system for bringing foreign fighters to justice.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments. Her tone, as ever, is spot on. I agree with her; we need to apply compassion to all in this situation. We also, of course, need to bring justice to those who must be brought before the courts. I am interested in the work that she cited and will certainly take a close look at it.

I completely concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and the Minister that these children are the innocent victims of their parents’ actions, and we owe them a duty of care. Since the law was changed in 2013, more than 150 children have been taken into the care system in the UK for fear of the risk of radicalisation by their parents. If the parents of these children were in the UK, those children would hopefully now be safely in the care of extended family members, expert foster carers or even adopted parents. Does the Minister agree that, if we can rescue these children safely, we should work to find them safe homes in the UK, whatever the status of their parents?

That is a reasonable analogy to draw, because we are dealing with UK law, and these children ultimately will be returned to the UK. In my view, we need to use the same standards, norms and principles with these children as we would apply in the UK. I note my hon. Friend’s point. He will understand that the piece of work under way is trying to identify precisely where these families are, who they are and what can be done. I do not think the numbers are vast. [Interruption.] He is right to say from a sedentary position that that does not matter. These are individual cases, but the press reporting 70,000 in al-Hol camp, for example, gives the impression that there are thousands and thousands of people in the frame for this. I can say without betraying any confidences that that would be a grave exaggeration. We are talking about a relatively small number of people. This should be a containable piece of work, and it is, I assure him, under way.

The Minister will be aware that there are different interpretations, particularly from those on the ground, of the Ankara-Washington ceasefire. Is that hampering the Government’s and agencies’ attempts to repatriate children? Does he agree that the UK Government need to increase the number of children being resettled here in the UK?

I think the hon. Gentleman raised a similar point before on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which I am very proud of—20,000 people by 2020 is a big commitment, particularly when it is taken along with our financial commitment to tackling the dreadful humanitarian crisis in Syria. He mentions the ceasefire. I assure him that we have used every opportunity to do what we can in relation to vulnerable people in north-east Syria during this period and will continue to do so, assisted, I hope, by the continuation of the ceasefire, and we have to hope for the best this evening.

When we look at the bigger picture, we see that the position of these British children and our national security have been adversely impacted by the invasion of north-east Syria by a NATO country following the exit of north-east Syria by a NATO country. Does the Minister agree that it behoves all political generations to review how supranational organisations work, so that they continue to work in Britain’s national interest?

I think the hon. Gentleman alludes to Turkey’s behaviour as a member of NATO. All I can say is that I am very disappointed by Turkey’s behaviour, as a trusted NATO friend and ally. I very much hope that it will desist from further incursion into Syria and de-escalate. Otherwise, I think the consequences will be very serious indeed.

Children’s services in this country are overstretched at the moment. Will the Minister ensure that adequate resources are made available to deal with this situation? Is he waiting for a ruling from the courts in relation to British nationality? He has talked about unaccompanied children, but that ruling could mean that there are accompanied children. Does he have contingency plans for that?

Referring to the point I made earlier, I think that the scale of this is containable. It is the responsibility of local social services to deal with it, notwithstanding the specialist nature of some of the services that will have to be provided to the vulnerable people concerned. I think I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks in relation to vulnerable children returning to this country having the specialist services they need to ensure their welfare and rehabilitation.

My constituent Kate has written to me to share her concerns about the intensifying and dangerous situation facing these children stuck in camps. Can the Minister confirm beyond any doubt that the UK Government accept their duty of care for these children and will take responsibility for these British citizens?

We look at each case individually; I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. I do not want to get wrapped up in a strict legalistic interpretation of “duty of care”. I want to ensure that we apply our moral duty to do what we can for innocent British nationals; I can give her that assurance

I am left a little bit perplexed, particularly following the Minister’s last response. Can he confirm, with a yes or no answer, whether all these young British children are the legal responsibility of Britain and the UK Government?

The difficulty is that if they are not unaccompanied or orphaned, they are in the care of their parents. I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing two things. It is important to ensure that children in this country and anywhere else remain in the care of their parents wherever possible. As a parent, I can say that it is vital that children remain in a family setting. That is what we will seek to ensure. The state abrogating responsibility for children is an extreme measure, and we will seek to keep families together wherever we can.

I am most grateful to the Minister and to colleagues for taking part. [Interruption.] Yes, I will take points of order. The day would not be complete without them.