End Unlawful Detention Press release

Most British women and children detained in North East Syria are trafficking victims

A new report from Reprieve reveals that almost two-thirds of British women detained in camps North East Syria are victims of human trafficking. The report, based on three years of investigations and multiple visits to the Kurdish-run camps, shows that:

  • At least 63% of adult British women detained in Syria meet the legal definition of trafficking victims, as they were all subjected to sexual and other forms of exploitation, and were either transported to Syria as children; coerced into travelling to Syria; or kept and moved within Syria against their will.
  • Almost half of these British nationals were children when they travelled to Syria. Some were as young as 12 when they were taken to ISIS controlled territory.
  • At least 44% of British women were coerced by a male partner or relative.

Of the estimated 800 British nationals who travelled to ISIS territories in Syria and Iraq, investigations by Reprieve suggest that no more than 25 British adults and 34 British children remain in the region. Of the small number of British nationals who remain in the region, the vast majority (84%) are women and children, over half of the detainees (57%) are under 18. 

ISIS employed trafficking tactics – including those similar to those employed by child sex trafficking gangs – and groomed and recruited hundreds of women and girls, who were subsequently forced into marriage, sexual slavery, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation.

After years of exploitation, including forced marriage, rape and domestic servitude, these British women and their children managed to escape ISIS territory and make their way to the North of the country held by the Kurdish authorities, where they are now detained indefinitely without charge or trial in desert camps, and are facing potential transfer to jurisdictions where they are at risk of torture and the death penalty.

The conditions in these camps are dire. In one camp alone, 517 people, mostly children, died in 2019, and at least two British nationals have died whilst in detention in NES, including one infant.

Reprieve’s report is titled Trafficked to ISIS: British families detained in Syria after being trafficked to Islamic State. Forewords for the report have been provided by the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP, Co-Chair of the APPG on Trafficked Britons in Syria, and Siobhán Mullally, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children. The report is available here.

Reprieve is calling on the UK Government to repatriate all British families back to the UK in order to effectively assess and investigate their status as victims of human trafficking, and to provide them with the necessary protection and assistance, in line with the UK’s domestic and international law obligations.

Maya Foa, Joint Executive Director, Reprieve, said:

“These are British women and girls, taken to Syria against their will or groomed by a sophisticated ISIS trafficking operation into making a terrible, life-altering mistake. Rather than recognise them as trafficking victims, the government has in most cases stripped them of citizenship and abandoned them. It should repatriate all British nationals in the camps, and bring prosecutions in British courts where there is a case to answer.” 

In a foreword for Reprieve’s report, Andrew Mitchell MP, Chair of the APPG on Britons trafficked to Syria, said: 

“There is no decency or justice in abandoning trafficking victims to face torture and the death penalty. These are difficult cases but Britain, as a leading member of the United Nations, must set a strong example. We cannot wash our hands of these Britons, abandoning them in ungoverned space…We must bring back all British nationals and tackle head-on the far-reaching ramifications of systematic trafficking by the so-called Islamic State.”