A Foreign Office minister said there was no official estimate of how many British children were trapped in Syria during a testing Commons debate in which politicians of all sides accused the government of not doing enough to help.
Andrew Murrison told MPs the government was seeking to repatriate orphans and unaccompanied children but was not in a position to confirm estimates released on Monday by Save the Children that at least 60 children needed assistance.
The Foreign Office minister admitted, in response to an urgent question in the Commons following a report in the Guardian, that “we are not in a position to make an accurate estimate of the number” of British children who could be brought back to the UK.
But while he would not be drawn on details, Morrison insisted that the government had been actively engaged in the past four days. “We hope to facilitate the return of unaccompanied or orphaned children where feasible,” the minister said.
Last week, in response to the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish area in Syria, UK ministers confirmed that the government would now consider repatriating orphans and unaccompanied children, possibly using British special forces to help extract them from the territory’s overcrowded refugee camps.
David Davis said Murrison’s commitment did “not go far enough”. Only three of the children identified by Save the Children were orphans, the senior Conservative said, adding that “children who have not been orphaned still deserve United Kingdom protection.”.
Davis said: “The children are there through absolutely no fault of their own. They should not be punished for their parents’ mistakes”. He highlighted how they had to endure “brutal fighting” as Isis was gradually defeated.
Morrison said that he did not recognize the figures cited by Davis, although he gave a slight hint that the government may look at other cases of other trapped British children, describing orphans and unaccompanied children as “a priority”.
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, accused ministers of missing an opportunity to act when the Kurdish-dominated region of north-east Syria was relatively peaceful, prior to the Turkish invasion of earlier this month.
The invasion had been given the green light by the US president, Donald Trump, who said he would not stand in the way of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in creating a “security zone” in Syria cleared of the Kurdish military.
Thornberry said: “If we were having this discussion two months ago, we would have been talking about negotiating the repatriation of these children with our Kurdish and American allies.”
The situation had become much more complex, she added: “Now, as a result of Donald Trump’s actions, that negotiation will need to involve the Assad regime, Russia and what are now their Kurdish allies.”
The former defense secretary Penny Mordaunt said that ministers should also consider whether “taking a child to a war zone … was seen as a form of child abuse”, which could justify repatriating British children who are currently with their parents in Kurdish-run refugee camps.
She asked if government lawyers could examine this “to see whether we can strengthen our hand in taking children back” and “to prosecute those who have taken children overseas”. Morrison said in reply that separating children from their mothers was particularly difficult.
Prior to the invasion, ministers had refused to help children trapped in Syria, arguing there was no Foreign Office support available. They argued that their parents had traveled to join Isis at their own risk.
But one of Murrison’s predecessors, Alistair Burt, complained that sometimes practical difficulties were used to “mask a failure in government to make the decisions it needs to make”.
Ultimately, ministers would have to decide how to deal with the children’s parents, Burt said, adding that the UK would “have to recognize an international responsibility to take them back, even those who have been indoctrinated and radicalized, in order to protect the children”.