The UK government must allow greater repatriation of British nationals held in Syria, recognising that circumstances have changed since 2017, according to Jonathan Hall, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation.
He also predicted little security risk in allowing the return of Shamima Begum, who fled her east London home when she was 15 years old to join the Islamic State in Syria, because her notoriety is such that she is likely to apply for a lifelong anonymity order requiring daily contact with authorities. Begum was stripped of her British citizenship in 2019, a decision upheld by the supreme court.
Speaking at an all-party parliamentary group on trafficked British people in Syria, he said: “I think it’s inevitable that many of these people will come back. And … if it’s going to happen, you must make it happen sooner or later.”
The US has put pressure on the UK to join its European allies in taking back more of its nationals, with some saying Britain had become an outlier in resisting such returns.
Speaking in Geneva, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, said an estimated 52,000 people were detained in the Hol and Roj camps in Syria, 60% of whom are children, of which 80% are under the age of 12.
Reporting on her six-day visit, Ní Aoláin said conditions were dire, children lived in fear of being separated from their mothers, and at the current rate it would take 20 years for the camps to close.
She that unless countries did more to repatriate from the camps, they were condemning the children to life imprisonment and damning them by association with terrorism due to where and to whom they were born.
The conditions of confinement in the camps, Ní Aoláin said, “constitute arbitrary and indefinite mass detention without legal or judicial process”. She said citizenship stripping should be a last resort and not used as a way of reducing a nation’s obligations.
About 900 UK-linked people travelled to Syria and Iraq, and at least 500 have returned. Hall said more than 60 former British nationals were still in detention, including a large number of children.
He told the all-party group: “The government did face the prospects of hundreds and hundreds of capable men coming back, and I have some sympathy with why the government took the decisions it did at that time, although I think the long-term implications are probably bad.
“But the position is now very different; a large number of people have been killed. Being able to show that there is a difference between the threat that existed from those people who travelled out in 2015-17, and now may be an important factor when deciding whether or not the policy can be revisited.”
He said the government needed to create a new policy “where they recognise that the factual position on the ground has changed”, permitting it to bring British citizens and those deprived of citizenship to the UK.
He also proposed that temporary exclusion orders – which allow the return a British citizen suspected of terrorist activity abroad only if they report to police stations and undertake mentoring – be extended to repatriated British residents.
He also suggested ministers should consider the possibility of imposing control orders on returning children, admitting “it would be a massive and dramatic step to take”.
He gave the example of “a returning child who might not volunteer to have assistance from a mentor or who may not choose to go to school. It would have to be a coercive measure, which would require them to attend certain places and would have to have consequences to it. At the moment I don’t think that exists.”
Hall, whose job is to advise ministers on Britain’s counter-terrorism laws, acknowledged it was easy to list the reasons that those who travelled to Syria to fight should not be allowed to return. He said it was difficult for the government to draw a line about who can return and on what basis.
He said it was not as easy as in some other countries to provide ministers with reassurance that those returning would be successfully prosecuted due to the UK’s adversarial court system, inadmissibility of intelligence evidence and difficulties in using battlefield evidence.