WhatsApp messages reveal UK mothers detained in Syria fear death amid worsening conditions

LONDON: The “alarming” situation in a prison camp in northern Syria has led to British mothers incarcerated there fearing for their safety, The Guardian reported on Monday.

The newspaper said it had seen WhatsApp messages sent by British women in Roj camp for former Daesh affiliates, including one in which a mother in her 20s wrote: “I’m going to die here if they don’t get me out soon.” She added: “I really, really want to go back and be with you guys. I really need hospital care.”

The Guardian said the revelations would put pressure on the UK government to repatriate the estimated 60 citizens, including 40 children, currently in Roj.

They include Shamima Begum, the London-born woman who left the UK in 2015 aged 15 to join Daesh, and who was subsequently stripped of her British citizenship.

The UK and Australia remain the only two Western nations that routinely oppose the repatriation of citizens currently in detention in Syria.

Others, including France and the US, have brought citizens home from Syria and neighboring Iraq to face justice, amid fears leaving people in the region could help destabilize it.

A UN report into Roj published last year said countries have an “absolute obligation to protect the right to life of their nationals.”

Sources told The Guardian that the UK government is aware of the poor conditions in Roj, which include cases of child malnutrition as well as deaths caused by treatable illness and pollution from nearby oilfields.

UK intelligence officers are believed to regularly visit Roj and nearby Al-Hol camp, which contain nearly 60,000 people between them.

Other WhatsApp messages seen by The Guardian detailed how a lack of access to medicine was adversely affecting detainees.

One said: “(I’m in) too much pain, I hate seeing (my son) go through all these things. I hope that the government says yes to me coming home.”

Another read: “I know my lungs haven’t been the same since corona (COVID-19) two years ago, the production of crude oil and the smell from it is I think making it hard for me to heal better as I can feel the burn inside.”

One woman said a dentist had suggested removing a child’s tooth without anaesthetic. “He wanted to pull the tooth out without injecting her. (The) mum rejected because (the girl) was really scared,” she wrote.

Another message sent in July 2023 said: “A lady died last night, I think from an asthma attack. I couldn’t help but cry my eyes out.”

Katherine Cornett, who heads human rights charity Reprieve’s unlawful detentions team, told The Guardian: “The situation really is getting worse. British detainees, none of whom have been charged with a crime or tried for a crime, have been held in awful conditions for years now.

“Children have died from a lack of access to hospital care. It’s just a matter of time before the same fate will befall a British woman or child.”

An aid worker at Roj said the women in the camp take huge risks trying to communicate with their families.

“There’s a lot of danger involved in passing messages because the Kurdish authorities will frequently do raids,” the aid worker told The Guardian on condition of anonymity.

“If they find a phone, women face extremely punitive measures and can be taken to a different prison facility, often they’re separated from their children and that can be months.”

Kathryn Achilles from the charity Save the Children said (Roj is “very securitised. There’s heavy surveillance, CCTV cameras everywhere, a lot of security guards with guns, huge fences. Movement is extremely limited.”

Cornett said: “These are essentially internment camps, they have no freedom of movement, they cannot leave, their communications are extremely circumscribed. These are detention facilities.”

A UK government spokesperson told The Guardian: “UK officials have facilitated the repatriation of a number of British nationals from Syria. All requests for UK consular assistance from Syria are considered on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant circumstances including, but not limited to, national security.

“Our priority remains to ensure the safety and security of the UK. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect the UK from those who pose a threat to our security, while also working with international partners to monitor the situation in Syria and provide humanitarian support.”

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