Boys playing on a climbing frame.

UK Government must protect British children in Syria

War Child UK is calling for children of British citizens who have been accused of association with extremist groups in Syria and Iraq to be immediately supported to travel to the UK following the Turkish invasion of Syria.

All children with British citizenship in families perceived to be associated with extremist groups should retain their UK citizenship and ability to return to this country, says the international child protection charity.  

This is because the UK government has a responsibility to protect British children and ensure that all decisions made about them are in their best interest, regardless of the affiliation of their family members

In North-East Syria tens of thousands of Islamic State Group (IS) fighters and their families are being held in camps and detention centres. The Turkish invasion of northeast Syria underscores the urgent need for countries to ensure that their imprisoned and detained citizens can be repatriated for rehabilitation, reintegration, and (where appropriate) prosecution in line with international standards. There are estimated to be more than 9,000 children from at least 40 different nationalities in north-east Syria, and at least 50 of these are from the UK. War Child has shared its concerns about the safety of this group with the Government, havingasked the Foreign Secretary of State and the Home Secretary to act.  

‘In the face of imminent conflict, our government rescued UK citizens from South Sudan in 2013, from Libya in 2014 and this year, rescued tens of thousands of families left stranded by Thomas Cook.  

‘The children in Syria are utterly defenceless, just as much as those supported by our government before. They face grave violations, serious harm and death and it is our duty both legally and ethically to make sure they are protected,’ said War Child UK chief executive, Rob Williams.  

The UK government has chosen to revoke citizenship from some British nationals accused of membership of IS on the grounds of protecting national security. This is having a huge impact on the children currently living in deplorable conditions and being denied protection in violation of their rights. 

In recent weeks, the UK media has shown evidence of detention centres in northern Syria containing men and boys affiliated with IS in extremely poor conditions. It is widely acknowledged that when children are imprisoned unseparated from adults, they are highly vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. If children are to be detained then special provisions for families should be in place and families/mothers should be kept separate to adult only prisoners, allowing children to remain with their parents in safer, more child-appropriate circumstances. 

‘The UK government is a signatory to multiple legal and normative agreements which define children’s rights and govern how children accused of association with armed groups should be treated. The UK is currently not meeting these agreements.‘ Mr Williams added. 

Do the children of foreign fighters pose a risk? 

  • There are concerns that children of suspected foreign fighters may pose a threat in the future, especially without effective individualized assessments, protection measures and rehabilitation and reintegration assistance. Such children must be recognized as victims of human rights violations due to being recruited and used by armed groups that commit these grievous violations against their rights.(1) A State may consider or determine that a child is a security threat because of his or her past experiences with a designated terrorist group; however, the best interests of the child principle requires States to fashion solutions to serve the child’s best interests on a case-by-case basis and pursuant to due process, even when the child’s interests may conflict with the State’s perceived security interests. (2) 
  • In cases in which it is considered that a child may pose an actual, proven security threat, authorities must still use the least restrictive response possible and adhere to the principles of justice for children. Assessments must still take into consideration what is required in rehabilitation in a manner that is respectful of the child’s rights, as well as what is restorative and addresses their needs. It is important that any rehabilitative actions do not stigmatize a child or put them at risk of being ostracized or neglected by their families or communities.(3) 


British children have the right to enter the UK 

  • Denying a child nationality because of the association with a parent who is deemed to be a foreign fighter would be contrary to the non-discrimination principle under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 2) and the best interests of the child (article 3) (see chapter 1 on the principles) 
  • The denial or deprivation of nationality has not been shown to be an effective counter-terrorism measure. Rather, it is increasingly understood to be potentially counterproductive to security aims for many reasons.(4) 


Guidance on whether a child should remain with their parents when returning  

  • Separation of a child from her or his parents should be considered only when there are reasonable grounds to believe that a child is, or is likely to be, exposed to severe abuse or neglect by parents. (5) When there are such grounds, the situation of the child and his or her family has to be assessed, where possible, by a multidisciplinary team of well-trained child-protection professionals with appropriate judicial involvement, ensuring that no other option can fulfil the child’s best interests. (6) In the best-interests assessment, how to preserve the family environment and maintain family relations is a key element that must be considered. (7) Any intervention should be combined with efforts to support the family. Of relevance for States that may wish to repatriate children affected by the foreign-fighter phenomenon, children should generally be repatriated with their parents or legal guardians, and certainly with siblings.  
  • If repatriation together is not possible, for example owing to differing nationalities, with parental consent, repatriation may proceed without a best-interests determination. However, a best-interests determination is necessary if a child is unaccompanied, if the child is at risk of imminent harm from the parent, or in a custody dispute.  


What if a child has been accused of crimes under international law? 

  • Children accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of child rights violations, not only as perpetrators. They must be treated in accordance with international law in a framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation, which offers children special protection through numerous agreements and principles. 
  • Wherever possible, alternatives to judicial proceedings must be sought, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international standards for juvenile justice. (8) 
  • Children who have been associated with armed forces or armed groups should not be prosecuted or punished or threatened with prosecution or punishment solely for their membership of those forces or groups. Children accused of crimes under international or national law allegedly committed while associated with armed forces or armed groups are entitled to be treated in accordance with international standards for juvenile justice. All relevant international laws and standards must be respected, with due consideration to the defendants’ status as children. Alternatives to judicialproceedings should be sought for children at the national level.  
  • If national judicial proceedings take place, children are entitled to the highest standards of safeguards available according to international law and standards and every effort should be made to seek alternatives to placing the child in institutions.(9) 

Contact our Media team 

For more information or to arrange an interview with a War Child spokesperson, please email us at [email protected] or call us on 07764 989 343.

Email us


War Child is striving for a world where children’s lives are no longer torn apart by war. We protect, educate and stand up for the rights of children caught up in conflict. We aim to reach children as early as possible when conflict breaks out and stayto support them through their recovery -helping to keep them safe, give them an education, and equip them with skills for the future. We understand children’s needs, respect their rights, and put them at the centre of the solution -from supporting Syrian children to access education, to reintegrating child soldiers in the Central African Republic and promoting justice for young  

people in detention in Afghanistan. Together with our partners we work in 15 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and  Latin  America.We  alsowork  with  children  and  young  people  to  change  systems  and  practices  that  affect  them –campaigning on the root causes of conflict and demanding that children are at the centre of humanitarian response.  




Charity number:107165 


  1. UNSCR 1539, 1612, 2250, and 2427 articulate protections for children affected by armed conflict and call on Member States to support these children with reintegration. UNSCR 2427 calls on Member States to ensure the protection, rights, well-being and empowerment of children affected by armed conflict are fully incorporated and prioritized in all post-conflict recovery and reconstruction planning, programs and strategies and encourages consideration of the views of children in these processes.The Rome Statute (2000) determines recruitment of children under 15 years of age is a war crime by state and non-state forces. The International Labour Organization’s Convention 182 also defines forcible and compulsory recruitment as one of the worst forms of child labour. 

  1. Joint general comment No. (2017) of the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families No. 22 (2017) of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, para 33 

  1. The Paris Principles (2007), para. 7.42. 

  1. Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly resolution2263 (2019), available at….  

  1. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), art. 9(1). 

  1. Committee on the Rights of the Child, general comment No. 14 (2013), para. 64 

  1. Ibid., paras 52, 58–70; Committee on the Rights of the Child, general comment No. 6 (2005), para. 34. 

  1. 1967 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice ("The Beijing Rules") GA Res.40/33 (1985); United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (“The Riyadh Guidelines”) U.N. Doc. A/45/49 (1990). 

  1. Paris Principles