Trinis beg Government to help find out if grandchildren are in ISIS camp

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

ATTORNEYS for the grandparents of two young children – ages six and four – are asking the State to ask the UK government whether it repatriated the children from Syria in early April.

The grandparents, Shanaz and Saheed Mohammed, of Cunupia, are seeking to have their son’s children brought to Trinidad and put in their care.

At one point the children were being held at the ISIS refugee camp Al Hol, in Syria but were reportedly moved to an orphanage in Quamishli, Syria, before being taken to the UK.

In a pre-action protocol letter sent to the Chief State Solicitor’s Department, attorney Siddique Manzano said the children are now feared to have been trafficked and has appealed to the Government to ascertain if they are in the UK.

The children’s mother, Misma Begum, was a citizen of the UK but died in Syria. Their father, a Trinidadian who left as an ISIS fighter, was captured and is said to have died in recent attacks in Syria.

Now their grandparents want the children returned to them as their surviving next of kin. They are also willing to have DNA tests done to prove they are the children’s grandparents.

The letter said in keeping with UN conventions relating to the repatriation and reintegration of women and children with links to listed terrorist groups, “The children must be treated as victims.”

It also said Trinidad and Tobago, as a member state, must ensure they are protected, repatriated and reintegrated into society.

“These minor children, as orphans, are particularly vulnerable,” the letter said.

The letter also pointed out that Government has repatriated children from conflict zones. In 2016, a mother and her two young children returned from Syria. She had left with her husband and daughter in 2014, and her son was born there in 2015. Her husband became a fighter for ISIS and died.

The woman and her children were detained in Turkey before they eventually reached London, but were back home by February 2016.

In a freedom of information request, in January 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked to provide the records and policy which facilitated the mother and her children’s repatriation. The attorneys were told the Government had adopted a policy for dealing with the repatriation of nationals who need help to return to the country and the ministry was guided by Cabinet Minute No 1267, dated June 1969.

The grandparents are part of the group of families who are lobbying for the repatriation of women and children detained at ISIS refugee camps and have accused the State of failing to disclose the Cabinet minute to the court in a lawsuit the group filed in hopes of speeding up the repatriation process.

In April 2021, Justice Joan Charles dismissed a claim in the High Court. She said she did not have the jurisdiction to order the State to approve their repatriation, and the process required action by the government.

In a release in response to the ruling, the Office of the Attorney General said repatriations from war or conflict zones involved national-security issues as well as international collaborations with foreign immigration, intelligence agencies, and diplomatic relations, which were matters of state policy, and the government did not have diplomatic relationships with those who controlled the camps.

It added that the court’s decision affirmed the government’s “thrust in its determination to fight the ravages of the global pandemic whilst protecting the reputation of TT in the international intelligence community, as well as the resultant safety and security of its population.”

The letter from the grandparents of the two children lobbying for their return said because of the State’s failure to adhere to international standards and practices on orphan children affected by armed conflict, they “are now missing.

“It is now incumbent on the Minister of National Security and/or the Minister of Foreign and Caricom Affairs to ascertain the whereabouts of the minor children and facilitate their repatriation so that they be placed in the care of the potential claimants.”

The Mohammeds, the letter said, are also involved in a campaign that “seeks to shed light on the fact that children in war-torn/conflict zones are being forcibly taken from their parents and primary caregivers and taken to orphanages in or around Syria,” and then to undisclosed locations.

Manzano asked the Government to do a thorough investigation of the children’s whereabouts and facilitate their return to TT, since they believe the children will be better off with them rather than becoming wards of the UK Government.