This week an appeals panel in London cracked the wall of resistance by most Western governments to bringing home citizens held as Isis suspects in northeast Syria. Local authorities have detained these citizens and their family members without charge for more than a year, in conditions that are at best appalling and at worst inhuman and life threatening. Most are women and children.
The Court of Appeal found that the UK government had denied a fair and effective appeal to UK-born Shamima Begum when it revoked her citizenship last year for joining Isis in Syria. It said Begum, now 20, could not effectively challenge the stripping of her citizenship from a locked camp in northeast Syria. It ordered the government to stop blocking her re-entry to the UK so that she could do so on home soil.
The court also affirmed that detention conditions in northeast Syria meet the threshold of inhuman or degrading treatment under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It found that the UK’s Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal had earlier failed to consider whether Begum’s citizenship deprivation increased her risk of mistreatment or threats to her life.
As Human Rights Watch has extensively documented, none of the estimated 14,000 foreign Isis suspects and their family members in northeast Syria – 8,000 children, 4,000 women, and 2,000 men and older boys detained separately as suspected fighters – has ever been brought before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their detention by a Kurdish-led armed force in filthy, overcrowded camps and prisons. Despite these dire conditions, most countries, including the UK, have brought home only small numbers of their citizens, usually orphans or young children. The UK acknowledges that it has revoked the citizenship of at least 150 nationals on security grounds in the past decade, but won’t say how many were abroad at the time or have suspected Isis links.
Begum was 15 when she left London to join Isis in Syria in 2015. She gave birth to two of her three children while she was still a child. All three of her children have died, the youngest soon after Begum was detained as an Isis suspect in northeast Syria last year.
Will this week’s judgment further fracture resistance by the UK and other governments to repatriate detained Isis suspects and their families? One hopes so, but it’s far from clear. The UK government has already vowed to appeal. Elsewhere in Western Europe, court rulings vary on government refusals to repatriate their citizens detained in northeast Syria. For example, a German court in November ruled that the government had to repatriate a mother and her three children, while the Dutch Supreme Court in June found that the Netherlands is not required to bring home 23 women and their 56 children. Many eyes are on the European Court of Human Rights, which is considering a case on France’s refusal to repatriate a woman and her two children from northeast Syria.
But for now, the Court of Appeal judgment from London is a significant human rights victory, affirming that the government cannot sidestep obligations towards its citizens because they are abroad and suspected of extremist armed links, or by trying to strip them of their citizenship. Rather than appeal, the UK government would do well to recognise that from a security, legal and moral standpoint, its best option is to bring its citizens home for rehabilitation and, as appropriate, prosecution. Denying citizens their basic rights will not make countries safer. Rather, it jeopardises core values and fuels grievances that boost recruitment to groups like Isis.