Britain has taken the step of repatriating a small number of orphaned children from north-east Syria who had been caught up in the conflict with Islamic State, the foreign secretary has announced.
Dominic Raab said the UK government had assisted their return from the war-torn country in a special repatriation that prompted calls for ministers to go further and allow all British children stranded in Syria to come back.
Raab said that the “innocent, orphaned children should never have been subjected to the horrors of war”, and added: “We have facilitated their return home, because it was the right thing to do.”
Few other details were made available and Raab – keen to strike a humanitarian tone on the the issue – said the children must be allowed privacy and given support to return to normal life.
Dr Abdulkarim Omar, a foreign minister representing the Kurdish-dominated administration in the country’s north-east, confirmed the children had been handed over to the UK Foreign Office.
The Home Office has said it would always consider how to repatriate individuals on a “case by case” basis, although authorities have generally been reluctant to help Britons who lived under the “caliphate” to come back.
Last week it emerged that ministers had also decided they would not mount a wider rescue operation involving the use of special forces such as the SAS, implying it was unlikely that other Britons in Syria would not be helped to come back.
But one British charity said all British children in Syria should be brought home. Alison Griffin, the head of humanitarian campaigns at Save the Children, said: “We fervently hope this is just the start. There are still as many as 60 British children that remain stranded in appalling conditions and Syria’s harsh winter will soon begin to bite.”
It is not clear how many of these 60 children are orphans, although some have lost their parents during the years of conflict. Another 60 adult men and women are also in the country, either in refugee camps or prisons for former Isis fighters.
Turkey’s invasion of the border areas in October further complicated the situation, prompting ministers to urgently evaluate whether some children could be rescued amid concerns about whether conditions in the camps would deteriorate.
However Priti Patel, the home secretary, and Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, successfully argued that a full rescue operation would pose too great a security risk – an argument that prevailed over Raab, who had wanted all British orphans to be returned.