End Unlawful Detention Press release

UK Govt. withdrawal of humanitarian support leaves Brits in NES at risk of death

The UK Government has withdrawn urgent humanitarian support from British families currently held in camps in North East Syria (NES), leaving at least one woman and one child under 5 at risk of death, The Times has revealed

On Monday, November 30, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) officials indicated to Reprieve that they would no longer take action on behalf of people from Britain facing death in the camps, despite having done so before. In at least two cases – including one of a child under 5 – FCDO officials refused to facilitate access to essential medical treatment or carry out checks on detainees’ whereabouts or wellbeing.

An independent medical assessment shows that a British child under 5yrs old is “at risk of pneumonia, permanent scarring of her lungs and possible respiratory failure due to her untreated respiratory issues” and that “[t]his could result in a risk to life if the conditions are left untreated”. According to another assessment, a woman suffers from untreated diabetes and asthma, and faces “risk to life in the short term as a further acute deterioration overnight could easily prove fatal”. 

This withdrawal of support is a significant, and unexplained, shift in policy. In emails to Reprieve, British officials had previously acknowledged the “urgency” and “acute circumstances” of one “extremely unwell” family, and agreed to ask “humanitarian actors on the ground in NE Syria to enquire as to the welfare of the family and follow up as they consider necessary”. 

However, on Monday the FCDO effectively reversed this position, arguing that the UK has “no authority over our partners on the ground” and suggested the family use a clinic in the camp run by the Kurdish Red Crescent – despite the fact this clinic is unable to treat the family’s core medical issues, as the medical report and other independent sources make clear.  

The FCDO’s argument it cannot help is undercut by its previous offers to work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation (SDC) to check on families and ensure they have food and healthcare; and by recent operations to facilitate the repatriation of several Britons. 

According to The Times, when asked about the urgent humanitarian crisis, “a government spokesman said yesterday that judgments should not be made about the national security risk an individual poses based on their gender or age.”

There are currently only a handful of British families held in the camps. Reprieve has been joined by senior British MPs in calling for the repatriation of British nationals – many of whom are highly vulnerable British women who were trafficked to Syria.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s Director, said: “How many women and children would need to die before this government decides to bring the small number of families home?  Where there are charges to answer, adults can be prosecuted in British courts and face British justice. The Government has now sought to justify its refusal to act by pointing to the possible national security risk posed by an infant under five, which surely speaks to the absurdity of its position.”