End Unlawful Detention Research report

Trafficked to Syria: British families detained in Syria after being trafficked to Islamic State

This report documents the circumstances by which numerous British families currently detained in North East Syria (‘NES’) were trafficked to and/or within territories controlled by the Islamic State group (‘ISIS’).

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

Reprieve’s investigations reveal that the majority of British women detained in North East Syria (at least 63%) are victims of trafficking. This is based on evidence that these women 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. Some of these women were as young as 12 when they were taken to Syria.

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 (‘AANES’), 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.

The UK Government is denying trafficking victims their right to an effective remedy.

The UK Government claims to be leading the global fight against human trafficking and modern slavery, yet in respect of these British trafficking victims, the UK Government has adopted a policy of blanket citizenship stripping, refusing to repatriate families and denying them even the most basic consular assistance.

As a result, the UK Government is systematically failing trafficking victims in the following ways:

  1. The UK Government is failing to take the necessary steps to identify British victims of trafficking currently detained in NES.
  2. The UK Government has failed to take a case-by-case approach to suspected victims of trafficking, instead applying a blanket approach based on harmful stereotypes.
  3. Public authorities failed to protect at-risk women and girls from being trafficked to Syria.
  4. The UK Government is failing to protect suspected victims of trafficking from retrafficking and further exploitation.
  5. The UK Government has been operating under an inaccurate legal definition of human trafficking when making decisions in respect of British nationals detained in NES.
  6. The UK Government is failing to protect many of the human rights of suspected victims of trafficking, including the right to family life.
  7. The UK Government is criminalising victims of human trafficking and punishing them for acts that arose out of their trafficking.
  8. The UK Government is denying trafficking victims their right to an effective remedy.

This report concludes that the complex dynamics of the situation of British women and children detained in NES can only be properly dealt with by the UK authorities when the families are repatriated to Britain, and it is wrong to suggest that the UK can abandon these victims of trafficking.

The UK Government is urged to comply with its legal obligations to identify, protect and support women and girls trafficked from the UK by ISIS. Reprieve recommends that the UK Government undertake the following steps:

  1. 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.
  2. Identify victims of trafficking through individual, case-by-case assessments of every suspected victim of trafficking, in compliance with domestic, regional and international legal obligations.
  3. Reinstate the British citizenship of all suspected victims of trafficking, in line with the UK’s human rights obligations, including not to punish victims of trafficking for acts that arose out of their trafficking and exploitation.
  4. Hold an independent inquiry into the failure to protect vulnerable individuals from being trafficked by ISIS.
  5. Guarantee the full human rights of those trafficked to ISIS, including the right to an effective remedy.