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Police treated us like criminals, say families of girls trafficked to Islamic State in Syria

Details of how police attempted to criminalise British families whose children were trafficked to Islamic State (IS) in Syria are revealed in a series of testimonies that show how grieving relatives were initially treated as suspects and then abandoned by the authorities.

One described being “treated like a criminal” and later realising that police were only interested in acquiring intelligence on IS instead of trying to help find their loved one. Another told how their home had been raided after they approached police for help to track down a missing relative.

Their experiences were revealed in a parliamentary session last week that was closed to the media at the request of the families, due to concern they would be misrepresented and harassed. However, four of the families that gave evidence have agreed to share their experiences with the Observer anonymously to shed light on their treatment by the authorities and how their daughters have been left stranded in Syrian refugee camps.

Their testimonies follow a report from legal charity Reprieve that found two-thirds of British women detained in north-east Syria were coerced or trafficked to the region, often lured there after being groomed on dating sites, before being sexually exploited.

The report found that many girls were under 18 when they travelled to IS territory and have since suffered exploitation, forced marriage, rape and domestic servitude. They include a British girl who was trafficked to Syria aged 12, then raped and impregnated by an IS fighter.

The family testimony was given to the all-party parliamentary group on trafficked Britons in Syria, which will release a report in the new year. Only about 20 British families are currently stranded in north-eastern Syria, yet the Home Office refuses to consider repatriating women and children.

All of the families who gave testimony expressed anger over how the UK government had ditched the principle of innocent until proven guilty in relation to their children, a decision they said compromised the UK’s international standing.

One said: “Normally, it is western governments that talk about human rights and trafficking. However, when it is my family who have been abused and trafficked, they have decided not even to investigate their cases. They are considered guilty just for being in Syria.”

They added: “Women and children are being punished without a trial. I don’t know why Britain has decided to abandon its principles in my family’s case.”

Another family member said: “I felt really betrayed and [she] felt confused as to why her country had abandoned her. I’ve now lost faith in the people who are supposed to help and protect us. We don’t have our rights any longer.”

Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, said the families in the camps had “been stripped of all rights, presumed guilty without a trial, subjected to violence, and abandoned by the government”. She said that the government “appeared to be seeking to inflict maximum harm on this group – which is mostly British children – to make some kind of political point”, adding that this was “dangerous for our security as well as the interests of justice”.

Reprieve’s research into the British trafficking victims is based on extensive work in the Syrian camps, while the Home Office has made no apparent attempt to visit the camps or evaluate if the women were exploited.

One of the families said it was laughable that their loved one could be considered a threat. “[She] is so frail and has been abused. She is not a threat. She is really scared and vulnerable,” they said.

Another added that their sister was effectively incarcerated the moment she arrived in Syria, saying: “She was imprisoned in every way; it was a cage from the moment she was there.”

Read the full story in The Observer.