Up to 60 British children living in Syrian camps, War Child report reveals

The foreigners section of Al Hol Camp, in northeastern Syria (Sam Tarling)
The foreigners section of Al Hol Camp, in northeastern Syria (Sam Tarling)

Up to 60 British children are living in overcrowded and violent conditions in the notorious Al-Hol and Roj camps in northeast Syria, a War Child report has revealed.

The children are thought to be among around 62,000 people, mainly women and children, detained in the camps with their rights “at daily risk” since the fall of the Islamic State in 2019.

War Child, a non-government organisation protecting rights of children in conflict, is urging the UK Government to repatriate all British children along with their parents or guardians “without further delay” as the number of exploited children rises.

To date, the UK is known to have repatriated just 10 children - nine of whom were unaccompanied orphans.

War Child pointed to other European countries, such as Germany, who has returned children and their parents stating that “the children are in no way responsible for their circumstances”. It repatriated 23 children and eight of their mothers from Roj camp in October 2021.

It said in contrast, the “dominant discourse in the UK remains one of blame”, “in which children are punished for the actions of their parents, and where their return is made virtually impossible by the government’s refusal to repatriate mothers or caregivers, and/or by stripping them of their citizenship”.

It comes after Shamima Begum, who fled east London as a teenager in 2015 to join the IS, lost her battle to retain her British citizenship in the Supreme Court earlier this year.

Ms Begum, who lives in the Roj camp, was stripped of her British citizenship in February 2019 after announcing her desire to return to the UK with her child.

Now aged 23, Ms Begum argued that she is stateless and not a threat to the UK. Her lawyers said at a hearing last year that she was “recruited, transported, transferred, harboured and received in Syria for ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘marriage’ to an adult male”.

Shamima Begum (PA)
Shamima Begum (PA)

The report highlighted the poor living conditions at the camps including extreme overcrowding, limited access to healthcare and education, and the risk of diseases spreading rapidly.

“Violence is also rife, and increasing amidst rising tensions in the camps,” the report said, while adding that 74 children reportedly died in Al Hol, eight of whom were murdered, in 2021.

Many of the children at the camps in northeast Syria were either born there, brought to the region by their parents, or were trafficked, the report said.

In 2020, there were 8,595 verified cases of children under 18 years of age who were used by an armed group, like the IS, in any capacity, such as fighters, cooks or for sexual purposes. It was the highest ever number recorded by the UN in a single year.

More than 6,300 of these cases were verified in 2021.

This is despite the extensive international legal framework banning the involvement of children in armed conflict.

The increase has been attributed to the  impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its affects on military recruitment and children’s education, and increasingly complex conflict environments.

In its report, published on Monday, War Child said: “Young adults who were recruited by IS as children should be recognised, first and foremost, as victims of crimes under international law, and provided with specialised age- and gender-appropriate support for their return, rehabilitation and reintegration.

“This should include reinstatement of citizenship where it has been withdrawn.”