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North-east Syria

Volume 800: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place on British children in north-east Syria. The Statement is as follows:

“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 United Kingdom 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, subject to national security concerns. 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 repeating that Statement. I am sure many noble Lords will have been disappointed by Dr Morrison’s response yesterday—particularly over the numbers—especially as NGOs on the ground are clear about the numbers. Yesterday, former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt complained that sometimes practical difficulties were used to mask a failure in government to make the decisions it needs to make. As we heard during the earlier Question from my noble friend Lord Dubs, ultimately Ministers will have to decide how to deal with the children’s parents. Does the Minister agree with Alistair Burt that we have to recognise an international responsibility to take them back—even those who have been indoctrinated and radicalised—to protect British children?

My Lords, first, I put on record that I know the right honourable gentleman Alistair Burt very well. I worked with him as a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and I pay tribute to his work across both that department and DfID. The Government have listened carefully and I have read through his exchange with my right honourable friend. As I have stated, it is clear that we have moved forward constructively. I am sure the noble Lord will acknowledge that the situation on the ground is difficult, but we have already committed that we will work with all agencies on the ground to ensure that we can bring minors and unaccompanied children back to the United Kingdom at the earliest opportunity. As to other British citizens, we are, as my right honourable friend said, looking at this on a case-by-case basis. I hear what the noble Lord says about numbers. I do not want to get specifically into the numbers but I can assure him that we are working with agencies on the ground to ensure that we can identify British citizens at the earliest opportunity and act accordingly in their best interests.

My Lords, I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and that expressed in the earlier Question. The Minister in the other place yesterday addressed the position of orphans, but Save the Children says that there are probably only three orphans out of 50 to 60 children. That may be why the Minister does not want to talk about numbers. All the children, most of whom are aged under 12, are in this position through no fault of their own. Does he agree that their rights must be protected and that when they are back, they must be fully supported? Does he further agree—we have to press him on this—that their parents, often in this case their mothers, must also come back and, if appropriate, be held to account? Leaving them and their children there is not only an abuse of the rights described earlier but may also foster further radicalisation. It is very short-sighted.

I reiterate, I can go no further on the issue of numbers. The noble Baroness referred to orphans but, as the Statement made clear and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, this is not only about orphans but also about unaccompanied minors. The right approach is to prioritise the most vulnerable, which Her Majesty’s Government are doing. On the issue of mothers, I listened to the point the noble Baroness raised, and which her colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, raised in an earlier Question, and we will look carefully at each individual case. On the issue of mothers, children and separation, I share the noble Baroness’s view that we should be mindful not to separate children from their mothers. That is being looked at carefully. However, the situation on the ground is very challenging. We do not have a consular presence on the ground, but we are working with agencies to identify specific cases involving British citizens and to act accordingly.

My Lords, although the Minister has rightly said that he cannot give exact numbers, does he recognise the figure of 60—double the number mentioned previously—produced by Save the Children, a reputable charity in this country? Can he also say why we said that it was too dangerous to take children out of the situation they are in, while the United States, France, Austria and Belgium were able to use the ceasefire to take children out of those same dangerous conditions? On consular access, does he also recognise that, as we do not have an embassy, consulate or any diplomatic presence in Syria, it is impossible for women—the mothers of these children—to get access to anyone? How are we going to provide that consular access?

On the noble Lord’s final point, I have said that we are working with all partners and agencies on the ground to identify those individuals, including the mothers of children, to whom the noble Lord alluded. On his point about numbers, he said that the number has doubled. That demonstrates why I do not want to get into speaking about numbers specifically. I accept that there are vulnerable children, orphans, unaccompanied minors and British citizens currently in that region. We will work with all agencies on the ground. On our international partners’ ability to access and withdraw their citizens, particularly children, the Government have said that we are looking at this carefully and seek to do exactly that: to withdraw unaccompanied minors and orphans at the earliest opportunity and in the safest possible way.

My noble friend mentioned the need for stability in the region. Is he able to throw any light on what discussions have taken place at the top of NATO, in the NATO Council and elsewhere, with Turkey, given that there is now an appallingly difficult situation where children are in danger with Turkey facing Russia in some strange sort of ceasefire?

My noble friend is right to raise the issue of Turkey. As noble Lords know, Turkey is a key NATO ally. For that reason, we have been prioritising direct discussions with Turkey. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Foreign Secretary Çavuşoğlu. On 12 October, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan, and he spoke to him again on 20 October. Points included ensuring humanitarian access in any incursion and that any returns to the buffer zone must be done on a voluntary basis in a secure and safe manner. There are other matters directly related to NATO which we are discussing extensively. The fact that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister prioritised those calls demonstrates the priority Her Majesty’s Government attach to this issue.

My Lords, Save the Children and members of the Minister’s party yesterday argued very strongly that all British children should be repatriated. The response was that the Government look at children on a case-by-case basis. Will the Minister explain what criteria will be used to decide which children are worthy of being brought back to Britain and which are not?

I referred to all British citizens in the announcement we made; I am sure the noble Baroness recognises that. I work very closely with Save the Children and have great regard for its incredible work on the ground. I shall not name specific agencies, but we are working with every NGO and partner on the ground to identify such people at the earliest opportunity. The noble Baroness does sterling work in this area, and I am sure she recognises that unaccompanied minors and orphans, whom we have specified, are the most vulnerable and we should prioritise them.

My Lords, it is right that Members of your Lordships’ House scrutinise the Government in detail on this issue, but I detect a slight difference of tone in the response on this issue from that which we previously received on similar issues under the previous Prime Minister. That is welcome if it is indeed the case. However, I want to highlight the circumstances in relation to children in this situation. There are people who were children when they were groomed to go to Syria or Iraq to be part of the Islamic State wider family, or perhaps to marry into it, and who have remained there even though they have now moved out of the age of childhood. Would it not be appropriate in those circumstances for the Government to rethink the very hard-line approach taken by the previous Home Secretary to these young women, who were children when they were groomed to go to marry ISIS fighters?

I am sure the noble Lord understands that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific cases. On the broader issue of radicalisation, we definitely need to look at it as a whole. On this occasion it has happened with Syria, but the tragic nature of grooming and radicalisation has to do with how it occurs, when it occurs and where it occurs. The fact that many young people and others left the United Kingdom after being influenced by Daesh’s narrative is something we need to look at as a priority. We also need to look at what steps can be taken domestically to prevent it happening again. I reiterate that we will look at specific cases that come to our attention on a case-by-case basis.