UK government gives IS a 'propaganda gift' by not repatriating women like Shamima Begum, report says

180321 Shamima Begum documentary, MetFilm
Credit: MetFilm

The government is giving a "propaganda gift to ISIS" by refusing to repatriate British women, like Shamima Begum, who have been detained in Syria, according to a parliamentary report.

An inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on trafficked Britons in Syria condemned the government's "systemic failures" to stop the trafficking of women and girls by IS. The parliamentary group, which received evidence from experts from British and American Government agencies, added that leaving those who join IS in detention camps is a security risk to the UK.

In stripping the citizenship of British women held in detention in North-East Syria and refusing to repatriate them, the report said the UK Government is punishing trafficking victims and exposing them to serious risks, including death, torture and re-trafficking. 

It went on to say the Government’s policy risks harming UK security, jeopardises regional stability and is firmly opposed by key international allies, like the US, who have already repatriated their nationals. 

The findings claimed the expanded use of citizenship-stripping powers is discriminatory, and has had a devastating impact on minority communities’ sense of belonging in the UK. 

In February 2019 ITV News broke the story of Shamima Begum having her UK citizenship stripped from her by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid.

Days later, Begum learned her fate in Syria when she was told of the decision by ITV News' Security Editor Rohit Kachroo who had travelled to Syria to speak to her in the holding camp she had escaped to having made the decision to leave ISIS.

Since then Begum has been pleading with the UK Government to allow her to return to the UK to face trial.

Tens of thousands of foreign men, women and children are still being held in prisons and camps in northeast Syria because the countries they left refuse to take them back.

Hundreds of British citizens, including Begum, were stripped of their citizenship by the government, making prosecutions in the UK impossible.

Calling on the British Government to learn from the report, the co-chair of the APPG Lord Jay said: "It is vital that we learn from the failure of UK public bodies to prevent ISIS from trafficking British women and girls. But rather than seek to understand how things went so badly wrong, the Government is doubling down on these failed policies by stripping potential trafficking victims of citizenship. "

Commenting on the report, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi slammed the Government's treatment of those who remained in Syria as well as their families in the UK.

She said: "The Government has used its powers to deprive citizenship almost exclusively against Muslims, and is now seeking to extend these draconian powers, signalling to Britons from minority communities that their rights can easily be taken away. To break this damaging cycle of alienation, we urgently need to listen to victims and their families – and the only way to do that is to bring British citizens home.”

Analysis by ITV News Global Security Editor, Rohit Kachroo:

It's been seven years since Begum travelled to Syria with two classmates to join the IS, becoming a poster girl for what was then a fast-growing terrorist organisation. She would later become the best-known case study for some of the issues raised in the parliamentary report.

But even now - even after her many television appearances and newspaper interviews - we do not know how and why she went, who paid for her flight, and how this (then) 15-year-old girl was able to marry an adult ISIS fighter when she should have been at home studying for exams.

Perhaps the only verdict in this complex case has been the one passed in the court of public opinion. But broader questions about the way some girls were drawn to Syria by terrorists who exploited them online have not been answered. Many of those girls - now women - have been stripped of their British citizenship.

CCTV of Shamima Begum and her friends leaving the UK for Syria in 2015. Credit: Met Police/PA

As it stands, Begum and other British (and former British) citizens in Syria are unlikely to face trials in the UK, in the short term at least. Some independent lawyers believe it would be too difficult to prosecute many of them in a British court. One former Whitehall official familiar with Begum’s case believes the government is unlikely to change its position. He conceded its approach has been shaped by the assessment that “there are too many risks, including public fury”. The British approach is contrary to that taken by the US and many other allies. Almost none of those friendly governments would criticise the British position in public, but some do in private. While UK officials say security concerns prevent them from repatriating some of its citizens, those concerns are not shared by some allies.

For example, last month two Swedish women and four children from ISIS families were handed over to a Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs delegation to be brought back to their home country, according to Kurdish officials. Where most western governments do agree is that there is no simple answer.