British nationals to be banned from parts of Syria under new law

Jamie Grierson


British nationals are to be banned from entering or remaining in parts of conflict-stricken Syria in the first use of a controversial new power.

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, will reveal on Monday how he expects the law, which makes it a criminal offence to enter or remain in a “designated area” overseas, to be used.

Addressing counter-terrorism experts and senior members of the security community in central London, Javid is to propose the power is used to target Idlib in Syria’s rebel-held north-west, where there has been devastating fighting in the last eight years, as well as the country’s north-east, a region controlled by Kurdish forces but once overrun by Islamic State militants.

A person convicted of entering or remaining in these areas, once designated, could face a jail term of up to 10 years, a fine, or both. The measure was written into the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which passed into law last month.

In a speech about the future of counter-terrorism, Javid will say: “I’ve asked my officials to work closely with the police and intelligence agencies to urgently review the case for exercising this power in relation to Syria, with a particular focus on Idlib and the north-east. So anyone who is in these areas without a legitimate reason should be on notice.”

Isis lost its final stronghold in Syria in March after a push by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

A person already in a designated area at the time of designation will not commit an offence if they leave the area within one month of such an order being made.

Other exemptions have been written into the legislation to protect those who have a legitimate reason for being in a designated area or conducting research online, such as journalists.

But campaigners for press freedom and human rights watchdogs have raised serious concerns about the legislation.

A joint statement from nine organisations including Index on Censorship and Reporters Without Borders last year warned the “vaguely defined” crime of hostile state activity would give border guards wide-ranging powers to stop, search and detain.

Javid, who is expected to run for leadership of the Tory party when Theresa May steps down as prime minister, will emphasise the importance of international cooperation in his speech, which will be noted by critics of Brexit who highlighted the risk to security that the UK’s departure from the EU could impose.

He is expected to say: “From terrorism, to crime, to hostile state activity, we are facing international problems, and they require an international response.

“As these threats become more global, we all rely on an international system of defence, policing, security and intelligence. A safety net based upon cooperation and unity.

“These structures rely upon free, democratic nations to pool information, coordinate law enforcement action and surrender suspected criminals across borders.

“More than any other country on Earth, the UK has a coherent, connected approach to intelligence and security and when threats appear, the world still turns to the UK for leadership, support and action.”

In his speech, Javid will also touch on work undertaken to stop people travelling overseas to join terrorist organisations: “The police and security services have worked tirelessly to identify those intending to travel overseas and join Daesh [Isis].

“They have seized passports at the border and prevented them from leaving the country.

“And along with concerned friends, families and public-sector colleagues, they have directed hundreds of at-risk individuals to support our Prevent programmes to turn them away from terrorism.”

More than 900 individuals “of national security concern” from the UK have travelled to take part in the conflict in Syria, the Home Office estimates. Of these, about 20% have been killed overseas and about 40% have returned to the UK.

Figures disclosed in the Commons earlier this year suggested only about 10% of returnees have been prosecuted over “direct action” in Syria, although the government says a significant proportion of those who have returned were assessed as no longer being of national security concern.