Home secretary Priti Patel intervened to block a recent rescue operation to bring British orphans and unaccompanied minors home from Syria, sources have revealed.
During National Security Council meetings last month and internal discussions, Patel, backed by several other ministers including defence secretary Ben Wallace, objected to the extraction of British children from the war-ravaged country, sources say.
Their opposition meant that a discussed late October rescue operation was abandoned at the last minute because Patel, Wallace and chancellor Sajid Javid felt the children posed “security concerns”.
More than 60 British minors, including at least three orphans, had been identified, and a quick and safe route identified to take them out of north-east Syria and then to Erbil, Iraq, where they would be flown home direct to the UK.
It has also emerged that not only had the extraction plan been prepared but that a number of councils in the UK had offered the care package and reintegration programme necessary for the children following their arrival in the UK.
The charity Save the Children, which has officials working in north-east Syria, described the resistance from ministers such as Patel as “grievous irresponsibility” and said that “playing politics” with children’s lives was unacceptable.
James Denselow, head of conflict advocacy at the organisation, said: “This is purely political. It’s a case of having ownership at a sensitive time in an election period over an issue that does not have 100% public sentiment behind it, but without that these people will live in limbo with all the consequences that come with it.”
Denselow said that the security situation in north-east Syria had deteriorated since the UK rescue operation was planned. “There was a window of opportunity that was wider, and now it is narrowing,” he said.
During the NSC meetings at which the repatriation of British children was discussed it is understood that the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was among those strongly advocating the repatriation of the children.
On 14 October, Raab told parliament that British orphans in Syria should be brought back to the UK, yet no subsequent statement outlining how the new approach would work emerged before parliament dissolved on 5 November.
Denselow said: “These are children who have been let down by irresponsible parents and not cared for by an irresponsible state.”
The inaction means the UK now has one of the most hardline policies towards repatriating nationals linked to Isis, with Uzbekistan recently among those announcing it would bring home Isis women and children.
Recently, lieutenant-general Sir Graeme Lamb, former director of special forces and commander of the field army who led British forces in the Iraq war, said: “Children should not be punished for their parents’ actions and decisions – most were forcibly taken to Isis territories, or born into them, and made to live according to its hardline doctrine.”
Turkey, however, has started sending Britons back to the UK. On Thursday, a 26-year-old man was arrested at Heathrow airport after being sent back by Turkey. The country said the man was among eight Islamic State suspects it had deported as part of a controversial push to repatriate foreign Isis suspects held in Turkish jails.