End Unlawful Detention In the news

Disabled mother in Syrian camp may die without medical treatment, Foreign Office warned

A leading neurologist has accused the Foreign Office of “barbaric behaviour” for failing to evacuate a dangerously ill woman from a detention camp in northeast Syria, where he says she will die without treatment.

The woman, who is in her early forties and referred to as “Layla” — a pseudonym because of an anonymity order — has spent almost four years in Kurdish-controlled camps with her son, now five.

The women are among more than 60,000 held in two camps so grim that they are often described as “Guantanamo in the desert”. America and most European countries have repatriated their citizens to face justice back home, concerned about the inhumane conditions and fearing radicalisation of the children by Isis in the camps. By contrast the British government has stripped the majority of the women, including Layla, of their citizenship.

Life in the camps is particularly hard for Layla, who is epileptic and paralysed on her right side after a stroke believed to have been caused by shrapnel in her neck, sustained during an airstrike on Raqqa where she had been taken by her husband.

Dr David Nicholl, a consultant neurologist at the Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, first examined her via Zoom in November last year and sent his medical report to the Foreign Office calling for her to be brought back on humanitarian grounds but received no response. Last month, he examined her again and found her to have deteriorated significantly, but again received no response after writing to the Foreign Office.

“She’s ill and at risk of dying and needs to be got out of there and brought back immediately,” he said. “It’s utterly inhumane.” Not only is Layla receiving no medication for her epilepsy but x-rays organised by the Kurdish authorities show that the shrapnel has moved dangerously close to the aorta, putting her at risk of another stroke.

Layla’s condition worsened three weeks ago on November 10, when she suffered two more seizures. The next day Maya Foa, joint executive director of Reprieve, a human rights organisation based in London that represents 30 of the detained women, sent a letter to James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, calling for urgent medical evacuation. “Her condition has become critical and a local doctor told her that without urgent surgery, she will die,” she wrote. “She requires immediate medical assistance that cannot be provided in northeast Syria.” Four previous letters from Reprieve to the foreign secretary regarding Layla’s case have gone unanswered as well as two from Nicholls.

Layla said: “I’m not a threat to anyone,” when she spoke to The Sunday Times at the camp in June. “I was never a threat.” She added: “When I was living with Isis I was always scared. I was mostly in the home, sometimes I went out to shops. I never worked in Isis, never did anything to anybody, I was just there.”

Layla was badly burnt last year when someone set fire to the tent. Watching her son play with a plastic dinosaur and a few toy cars, Layla said she was desperate to go home so that he could have a normal life.

Britain is increasingly an exception among western countries in leaving its citizens in the camps. Spain repatriated some of its citizens last week. Even Australia, which had been equally hardline, brought back four women and 13 children at the end of October.

The UK has taken back some unaccompanied children. Last month a woman was repatriated with her child on humanitarian grounds, apparently because she was taken to Syria by a male family member at a young age.

Told that a British woman was being repatriated, the authorities at Roj camp assumed that it was Layla and got her and her son ready. They were said to be “flabbergasted” when they realised it was not her.

Read the full story in The Sunday Times.