Today’s supreme court judgment in Shamima Begum’s case offers little resolution to an issue our government wishes would go away. While the court deferred to the home secretary’s decision to bar Begum from returning to Britain, it offered no solution to the intractable problem of her continued detention in a dangerous and unstable Kurdish-run camp in Syria. Right now, the government’s “solution” is to take no action and hope the issue goes away, but it will not.
I have been to Camp Roj twice, and have seen its inhumane reality. Those living in its rows of tents patrolled by men with guns are mostly children, and include British citizens who our government would rather ignore.
United Nations experts are right to warn that people there are exposed “to violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation” in conditions and treatment amounting to “torture … or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law”. Hanging over the heads of every prisoner in these camps is the threat of torture and execution.
Camp Roj and its sister camp, al-Hol, in north-east Syria, are makeshift detention camps that are fast resembling Guantánamo Bay: prisons where people can be forgotten about and kept at arm’s reach from the law.
The camps are deeply unstable, and when they collapse the prisoners face transfer to Iraq or a part of Syria controlled by Bashar al-Assad, where they would face disappearance or the death penalty. My organisation, Reprieve, is working to ensure these individuals are not subjected to capital punishment, and instead are returned to their home countries for, where necessary, a fair trial.
But I know the realities of these cases. While the women have been widely caricatured as “Isis brides”, a label that has been used to demonise and justify the removal of their legal rights in contravention of international law, many were trafficked to Syria as teenagers after being groomed by Isis online.
The UK government would prefer Begum to remain a notorious 15-second video clip, apparently indoctrinated and unrepentant. But she isn’t: she left Britain as a 15-year-old schoolgirl preparing for her GCSEs, having been groomed by a trafficking gang into making a terrible, life-altering mistake. To the UK government, this is irrelevant: she travelled to Syria, they falsely claim, “of her own volition”. This is simply not the case.
The government’s approach – it can hardly be called a policy – remains shortsighted, irresponsible and contrary to our security and justice interests. A host of security figures in the UK have called for British prisoners to be repatriated, including the former MI6 counter-terrorism director Richard Barrett, while the US government has warned: “The global threat from Isis will grow if the international community does not repatriate their citizens.”
But this is not just a matter of security. Stopping Begum and others from returning home was always a cynical ploy to make her someone else’s responsibility. Hannah Arendt famously described citizenship as “the right to have rights”: depriving someone of it is an extreme act. Until 2006, the UK government only did so in exceptional circumstances, and in the first three years after the threshold for citizenship deprivation was lowered, only four Britons had their citizenship stripped. But in 2017 alone the power was used more than 100 times on the grounds that it was “conducive to the public good”.
Of the 25 British adults we know of in Camp Roj and its sister camp, al-Hol, at least 20 have been stripped of their citizenship. The letters Reprieve has seen informing them of this are identical, and show that the UK government has made no attempt to reckon with individual circumstances or their actions. The text simply says they have been “assessed as a threat to national security”, having travelled to Syria, as we saw in the letter to Begum, “of their own volition”.
But the evidence does not bear this out. Our research suggests that a majority of British families in these camps were trafficked to Syria. One young woman, Nadia*, was trafficked to Syria aged 12, forced to marry at 14 and had her first child at 15. Another, Zara*, was forced to go after her abusive husband threatened to kidnap their daughter, and then sexually exploited and forced into domestic servitude when she arrived.
The government claims to lead the world in its efforts to identify victims of human trafficking, and states that “the safety, protection and support of the potential victim must always be the first priority” – but this apparently does not apply to Shamima, Zara and Nadia. Home Office guidance cautions that victims may appear to be “willing participants”: why should this not be the case when Isis is the grooming gang?
It is much easier to deprive someone of their rights when they have been reduced to a caricature. When the government is eventually obliged to reckon with these women in their full humanity, it will surely understand that it cannot continue to deny them their rights.
The good news is that our closest security allies have come to this realisation already. The US government has repatriated its nationals in the camps, and the Biden administration recently argued that “beyond being the best option from a security standpoint, repatriation is also simply the right thing to do.” Germany, Finland and Ukraine have also begun repatriating their nationals from the camps.
When it comes to British detainees in Syria, the only viable option is to bring our nationals home and ensure they are given due process.
* Names have been changed
Maya Foa is the director of Reprieve, a legal charity that works against grave human rights abuses