Police treated us like criminals, say families of girls trafficked to Islamic State in Syria | Home office

Details of how police tried to criminalize British families whose children were trafficked to Islamic State (IS) in Syria are revealed in a series of testimonies showing how grieving parents were initially treated as suspects and then abandoned by authorities.

One described being “treated like a criminal” and later realized that the police were only interested in obtaining intelligence about IS instead of trying to help find their loved one. Another recounted how their home had been raided after they turned to the police for help in locating a missing relative.

Their experiences were revealed in a parliamentary session last week, which was closed to the media at the request of the families, due to concerns that they would be misrepresented and harassed. However, four of the families who testified have agreed to share their experiences Observer anonymously to shed light on their treatment of the authorities and how their daughters have been left stranded in Syrian refugee camps.

A woman revealed how she had cooperated with police when her sister disappeared, only to learn that officers did not intend to track her down. ‘We thought the police were there to help us. In time, we could see that the police and the authorities did not speak to us to help us, but only to get information. Once they got their information, they washed their hands of us. “

She added: “We were never offered any support. I felt I had to prove I was anti-extremist towards them; I felt like I was always under suspicion.”

A member of another family said, “I was questioned as if I were a suspect, and when they decided I was not, they did not really want anything to do with me. It became really difficult to get in touch with them. ”

Their testimony follows a report by the legal charity Reprieve, which found that two-thirds of British women detained in north-eastern Syria were forced or trafficked to the region, often lured there after being cared for on dating sites, before they were sexually exploited.

The report showed that many girls were under the age of 18 when they traveled to IS territory and have since been subjected to exploitation, forced marriage, rape and domestic slavery. They include a British girl who was trafficked to Syria at the age of 12, then raped and impregnated by an IS fighter. One of the most high-profile British cases of children joining IS involves three London schoolgirls, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Amira Abase and Shamima Begum, both 15. The latter’s lawyer says there is “overwhelming evidence” for, that Begum was traded.

The family’s testimony was given to the parliamentary group of all parties on traded Britons in Syria, which will publish a report in the new year.

Only about 20 British families are currently stranded in northeastern Syria, yet the Home Office refuses to consider repatriating women and children. It has even removed citizenship for most, including Begum.

Three teenage girls carrying bags seen in an overhead surveillance camera
Amira Abase, 15, Kadiza Sultana, 16, and Shamima Begum, 15, from Bethnal Green in London at Gatwick Airport in 2015. Photo: Metropolitan Police / PA

The position of the British government is at odds with the position of other European states, and the United States has called on Western countries to take responsibility for their citizens and bring them home.

Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary and chairman of the parliamentary group for all parties, said: “If the government would only listen to these families, it would certainly realize the inhumanity and sheer injustice of leaving British citizens in desert prison camps.

“This horrific policy is affecting ordinary law-abiding families and fraying the structure of our multicultural society. Whether from a security or moral perspective, the issue of repatriation could not be clearer.”

Former Foreign Minister Baroness Warsi said: “Many of us in Parliament are very concerned about what is happening here, especially in relation to the precedent it is setting.”

All the families who testified expressed anger over how the British government had dropped the principle of innocence until proven otherwise in relation to their children, a decision which they said compromised Britain’s international status.

One said: “Usually it is Western governments that talk about human rights and human trafficking. But when it is my family who have been abused and trafficked, they have decided not to even investigate their cases. They are considered guilty just for being in Syria. “

They added: “Women and children are being punished without a trial. I do not know why Britain has decided to abandon its principles in my family’s case.”

Another family member said: “I felt really betrayed and [she] felt confused as to why her country had left her. I have now lost faith in the people who are to help and protect us. We no longer have our rights. “

Reprieve’s data indicate that British families in northeastern Syria include about 19 women and 38 children; more than half of the children are five years or younger. The British government has stripped citizens of at least 20 of the adults, including Begum. That stance seems peculiar, experts say, when viewed in relation to the fact that only 40 or so of the 400 Britons who have returned to Britain after traveling to Syria or Iraq to join terrorist organizations have been prosecuted .

Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, said the families in the camps had “been deprived of all rights, presumed guilty without a trial, subjected to violence and abandoned by the government”. She said the government “seemed to be trying to inflict maximum damage on this group – who are mostly British children – in order to make some kind of political point”, adding that this was “dangerous to our security as well as interests of justice “.

Reprieve’s research into the British victims of human trafficking is based on extensive work in the Syrian camps, while the Home Office has made no overt attempt to visit the camps or assess whether the women were exploited.

The British government has defended its position, saying it views British families as a potential national security threat.

One of the families said it was ridiculous that their daughter could be considered a threat. “[She] is so fragile and has been abused. She’s not a threat. She is really scared and vulnerable, ”they said.

Another added that their daughter was actually imprisoned the moment she arrived in Syria, saying, “She was imprisoned in every way; it was a cage from the moment she was there.”

The families’ evidence has sharpened focus on how the British authorities failed to protect vulnerable women and girls from being trafficked to Syria in the first place.

In particular, their testimony raises questions about the police’s harsh approach to choosing to see vulnerable young women and children as terrorists rather than as a protection issue.

“All I want to ask the government is: you had every opportunity to protect her and failed, how can you now wash your hands of her?” said one.

After listening to their testimony, Warsi told the families: It is important for me to be involved in this, because it could be me, it could be a descendant of my family. ”

She added: “I served as the first Muslim in the cabinet of this country and this country is the only place that my family before and after me would consider being at home. This is a point of principle that goes beyond you and your families, but your families are cases that illustrate this principle. “

Conditions in the Kurdish-controlled refugee camps are harsh – described by the World Health Organization as “regrettable and unbearable”. According to Save the Children, 163 people died in Camp al-Hol during the first eight months of 2021, including 62 children. There have been at least 81 murders this year. In August last year, eight children under the age of five died in a single week.

A family member told the parliamentary inquiry: “The children are growing up surrounded by threats of violence and danger from things like frequent tent fires.”

Another added that her grandchildren “suffered” in the camps: “The children are still young. I do not want them to be brought up in unsafe camps without access to medical facilities or education.”

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