This factsheet was updated on 5 November 2019.
This factsheet explains our approach to managing the threat posed by individuals who have taken part in the conflict in Syria.
As set out in our CONTEST strategy, more than 900 individuals of national security concern from the UK have travelled to engage with the conflict in Syria. Of these, approximately 20% have been killed whilst overseas and around 40% have returned to the UK. The majority of those who have returned did so in the earlier stages of the conflict, and were investigated on their return. A significant proportion of these individuals are assessed as no longer being of national security concern.
Anyone who does travel to Syria, for whatever reason, is putting themselves in considerable danger but also potentially poses a very serious national security risk to the UK.
Those who have fought for or supported terrorist organisations including Daesh should wherever possible face justice for their crimes in the most appropriate jurisdiction, which will often be in the region where their offences have been committed.
Everyone – male or female above the age of criminal responsibility – who returns from taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences, and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to our national security.
Individuals that do return should expect to be investigated and, where there is evidence that a crime has been committed, prosecuted. Decisions on prosecutions are taken independently by the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on a case-by-case basis.
Do these people have access to consular assistance?
Since 2011, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised against all travel to Syria. British nationals in Syria should leave by any practical means. All services of the British Embassy in Damascus are suspended.
How does the Government deal with those who do return?
In addition to seeking prosecution of terrorism suspects, we use a range of tools to manage the threat posed by those who return – managing risk through Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs) and using Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs) to place in-country conditions upon return. This can include regular reporting to a police station and mandatory attendance on the Desistance and Disengagement Programme – an intensive programme of tailored interventions designed to protect both the individual and wider society.
The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 introduced a new offence of entering or remaining in an area outside the United Kingdom that has been designated by the Home Secretary if it is necessary for protecting the public from terrorism. The designated area offence will support efforts to prosecute those who return from overseas that have engaged in terrorism and efforts to deter those here in the UK who may seek to emulate those that have already left.
What offences could returnees be charged with and what sentences could they face?
The UK courts have extra-territorial jurisdiction over a number of terrorism offences relevant to foreign fighters, including:
- Preparation of Terrorism (maximum sentence: life imprisonment)
- Encouragement of Terrorism (maximum sentence extended from 7 to 15 years in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act)
- Training for Terrorism (maximum sentence: life imprisonment)
- Membership of a Proscribed Organisation (maximum sentence: 10 years)
In the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act we extended extra-territorial jurisdiction to the following offences so that a person may be prosecuted in the UK for conduct that took place abroad, which would have been unlawful had it taken place here:
- Inviting or Expressing Support for a Proscribed Organisation (maximum sentence: 10 years)
- Displaying an Article Associated with a Proscribed Organisation (maximum sentence: 6 months)
- Dissemination of Terrorist Publications (maximum sentence extended from 7 to 15 years in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act)
- Making or Possessing Explosives Under Suspicious Circumstances (where the offence is committed for terrorist purposes) (maximum sentence: life imprisonment)
What about children who return?
The Foreign Secretary made it clear to the House that the Government will try to help any British unaccompanied minors and orphans in Syria. We will work with relevant UK and international partners to facilitate their return where feasible.
Each request for consular assistance will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
We expect children returning from Syria to have been exposed to the conflict, indoctrination and to have experienced severe trauma. A range of specialised support – some which is funded directly by the Home Office – is offered to address concerns ranging from safeguarding to national security. Our support will be tailored to the needs of each individual child.
The Home Office has funded a NHS Foundation Trust to assist local authorities and local NHS trusts to conduct comprehensive mental health and emotional wellbeing assessments of all British children returning from the conflict in Syria; and to provide key worker support to assist in the safe reintegration of those children.
The Foundation Trust will ensure coordination for the provision of mental or emotional health interventions for the child and family as identified by their assessments. This may include direct provision of treatment, referral to another appropriate specialist service or supporting the local NHS providers. This will be dependent on both expertise and practical considerations.
Additionally, the Foundation Trust is equipped to liaise with other agencies and individuals in contact with the child to ensure that more general support is provided where necessary, again with the objective of ensuring that returning minors are reintegrated in the safest way possible.
As the organisation is commissioned at the local level, they are included in the Local Authority’s multi-agency arrangements, to ensure that a consistent approach is being taken with regards to the individual children and families – some of whom will have many different agencies involved in their case providing support (as well as the potential for an on-going criminal investigation into the activities of the parents (and potentially the child)).
Why can’t we ban people from entering this country if we suspect that they have been involved in terrorism?
If a UK national has, or in some cases could acquire, another nationality, the Home Secretary has the power to remove their British citizenship and stop them from returning if they assess that to do so would be conducive to the public good. However, it is prohibited under international law to remove the nationality of an individual when to do so would leave them without any nationality and, in effect, stateless.
Since 2010, around 150 individuals have been deprived on the basis that deprivation is conducive to the public good.
Where it is not possible to deprive an individual of their British nationality we are obliged, under international law, to let them return. However, we have a range of tools available to protect national security and mitigate the threat they may pose.