ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The UK’s international development secretary told lawmakers on Wednesday that a law intended to limit British citizens from traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State will not affect humanitarian workers going to northeast Syria.
“The reason why the Home Office has been considering introducing this legislation is that we are looking at ways to try to prevent people going out to such areas for terrorist activities,” Rory Stewart said in response to a question from Labour MP Lloyd Russel-Moyle.
Recent legislation bans British citizens traveling to areas including northwest Syria controlled by jihadist groups, but also those led by the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Under the controversial Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, British nationals could face up to 10 years in jail for such travel.
“It is not primarily intended to prevent humanitarian assistance going out,” the UK secretary said, in wording that did not rule out the notion of some initial intention to limit travel for aid groups.
“One of the legal issues that the Home Office has faced is that, despite having clearly advised that British citizens should not be traveling to such areas in order to prevent them from joining Daesh [Islamic State], we did not have the legal framework in place to make that happen.”
He underlined that a new proposal that the Home Office is considering targets foreign fighters, and will “exclude people who are going there for humanitarian reasons.”
Stewart has previously acknowledged that the Islamic State was defeated in Syria largely due to the efforts of the SDF.
Russel-Moyle, who visited northeast Syria last year as part of a British delegation, is worried that the law will be used to prevent British nationals from cooperating with Syrian Kurds in the future.
He said that the SDF “helped us, as he [Stewart] described it, to defeat ISIS, and it would be totally self-defeating to make it illegal for British citizens to co-operate with them in the future,” and called on the government to exclude northeast Syria from the ban.
British nationals that joined groups like the SDF to fight against the Islamic State also fear the law could be used to prosecute them.
More than 40 international volunteers have called on the UK government to distinguish between jihadists and others fighting with Kurdish forces in a letter sent in May.
According to former British volunteer Macer Gifford, who fought in Raqqa, the new law is too vague and designates entire areas as “terrorist hotspots.” Because of this, he said, he worries such broad language will discourage independent journalists and humanitarian workers from operating in Syria.
“Anyone entering these designated areas are liable for arrest and must explain their movements to UK authorities. This will harm our ability to get aid to conflict zones and to get reliable information out.”
What is needed instead, said Gifford, was “targeted legislation that goes after terrorists and their supporters.”
Editing by John J. Catherine