More than 60 children of British Islamic State fighters are stranded in Syria, according to Save the Children, double the number previously thought.
The children, many of them under five years old, are enduring “dire conditions” in desolate camps or have been displaced following the recent escalation in fighting, the charity said.
The Telegraph had counted 30 children of British parents, based on leaked UN refugee agency lists of camp residents. A third of those are British-born and two-thirds were born in Isil’s “caliphate” but potentially entitled to citizenship through their parents.
The British identity of three orphans in one of the camps was also discovered last week by the BBC.
The development prompted Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary, to open the door to the possible return of unaccompanied British minors, but it did not extend to children who were with their parents.
Britain’s main allies in the coalition: the US, France and Australia, have all managed to repatriate children from Syria, however UK officials had claimed it was too dangerous.
A spokesman from Save the Children told the Telegraph it was a “positive start”, but not enough. “But from our understanding the vast majority of British children are not orphans, they are with their mothers,” said Sonia Kush, the charity’s Syria Response Director.
The children are scattered across detention camps in Kurdish-held north-east Syria, but their situation has become even more precarious after a Turkish offensive on the area.
Some of their mothers have been deprived of citizenship by the British government, complicating any possible return.
Two British women have already managed to escape from Ain Issa camp after it came under attack from Turkish air strikes and Kurdish guards fled.
One of the women, Tooba Gondal, an Isil “matchmaker” from east London who escaped one of the detention camps last week, was banned from re-entering the UK last November by a Home Office exclusion order.
Her three-year-old son Ibrahim‘s late father was British, however, her 18-month-old Asiya, had a Russian father.
Experts have warned the longer the children remain in the camps, which have been described as “mini caliphates” due to the number of highly radicalised women, the worse their prospects will be.
Some British children have been living in the camps for as long as two years, while many arrived after the fall of the village of Baghuz, the last of Isil’s so-called caliphate, in March.
Save the Children’s team in Syria recently spoke to a British mother with two young children – a baby and an under-five – in one of the camps. She told us she knew of at least 15 other British children in the same camp.
The mother said she and her family made a traumatic escape from “hell” in Baghuz. She, along with her children and sister, ended up sleeping in the open desert as they fled. Her youngest baby was close to death with bronchiolitis when they arrived at the camp earlier this year.
She accepted that she would face investigation in the UK but said she felt that in Syria no-one would ever hear her case. She told us that she was scared to be in the camps and very afraid of what would happen to her children.
The British government has so far refused the return of Isil fighters and their families, despite pressure from the US-led coalition and their Kurdish allies.
Responding to an urgent question, Mr Raab told MPs last week that the Government does not want to see the return of British foreign fighters to the UK, but, given the "fluid situation", this may change.
“Children in Syria who have fled Isis-held areas are innocent,” Alison Griffin, Save the Children’s Head of Conflict and Humanitarian Campaigns, said on Monday. “Their short lives have been full of violence and fear but with the right care they can bounce back, recover and amaze us. They deserve that chance, no matter what they’ve been dragged into by the decisions of adults.
“For the British children among them we can and must give them the safety they need by bringing them to be cared for in the UK.”