UK must stop funding detention of children in Syria, says David Davis MP


As published in the Guardian

The UK must urgently end its policy of funding the illegal detention of children in north-east Syria, and disclose how many British minors are being held in camps run by Syrian Kurds on behalf of the west, the former cabinet minister David Davis has said in a letter to the foreign secretary, James Cleverly.

The letter comes after it was revealed that Yusuf Zahab, a 19-year-old Australian citizen locked up in Syria since he was 14 and presumed killed in a July 2022 Islamic State (IS) attack on a prison in the city of Hasakah, may be alive after all. A year-old video of him speaking and dated after the IS attack was released on Tuesday.

His plight underlines how many children were taken to Syria by parents wishing to fight for IS and who have grown up in detention ever since the defeat of the terror group.

The UN wrote to the British government in 2022 saying it believed the UK was providing up to £20m to fund the detention camps, including one containing 690 boys, some as young as nine.

In his letter Davis expressed his disappointment that the UK Middle East minister, Lord Ahmad, had not responded to his request to set out how many British children were being held in British-funded detention camps in Syria. Ahmad cited operational security for giving no further details.

Davis pointed out that France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands and several other countries had repatriated families from north-east Syria and there was a consensus among the UK’s allies, notably the US, that governments cannot bury their heads in the sand on the matter. He added that in June, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, had said that “repatriation is the only durable solution” and that failure to to do held significant security risks and could lead to a resurgence of IS.

Davis said: “British boys are being held in dire conditions, in overcrowded cells of 20-25 people, with poor ventilation and open latrines, and limited access to food and medical care. Some boys are being detained in cells with adult men. Boys in these prisons are at risk of violence, sexual violence, trafficking, forced recruitment, and death.”

Their detention, he added, was “arbitrary and constitutes collective punishment – a clear breach of international law, funded in part by the British taxpayer”.

Davis said: “A change of policy is urgently needed. Condemning British families to indefinite detention without trial is inconsistent with British values and support for the rule of law. Repatriating British families is the only sensible choice for UK and global security”.

Maya Foa, the director of the legal charity Reprieve, said: “The ordeal suffered by Yusuf Zahab and his family illustrates why British families with relatives in north-east Syria are so scared. UN experts have already warned that there may be British boys in these prisons held in cells with adults.

“Every day the UK government persists with its do nothing policy the risk increases that British boys on the cusp of adolescence will be disappeared into these black holes possibly never to be seen again.

“Rather than continuing to fund Britain’s Guantánamo in the desert, the government should follow the example of its allies and bring British families home.”

In response to previous lobbying, Ahmad wrote to Reprieve in March, saying: “Responsibility for detention and camp facilities and the wellbeing, detention, transfer or prosecution of detainees is ultimately a matter for authorities under whose jurisdiction the individuals are detained, in this case the autonomous administration of north and east Syria”.

He added: “The UK is committed to tackling the challenge of increased insecurity and rising humanitarian needs in north-east Syria and is supporting vulnerable populations there with vital, lifesaving assistance, including in IDP [internally displaced persons] camps, settlements and communities.

“The United Kingdom has no consular presence within Syria from which to provide assistance. This makes it difficult to provide direct help to British nationals located there, but we carefully consider how we can support every British national that asks for our assistance. We are committed to considering every request for consular assistance on a case-by-case basis”.