In Depth

Can you travel to Syria?

Sajid Javid enacts controversial new powers to ban UK citizens from entering dangerous parts of the war-torn country

The home secretary plans to use a new counter-terror law to ban UK nationals from entering or remaining in terrorist hotspots in Syria.

Under the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act (CTBS), Sajid Javid wants to prevent Britons from entering Idlib, in northwest Syria, and parts of the northeast of the country. He has given British citizens in northern Syria 28 days to leave the area or face prosecution.

The new act allows the Home Office to bar UK citizens from travelling to or remaining in specific designated areas in order to protect the public from terrorism, The Guardian reports. Failure to comply could result in a maximum prison sentence of ten years when they return to the UK.

Javid, who is expected to run for prime minister, says he has asked his department 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,” he added.

What are the new laws?

The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which was granted Royal Assent in February this year, gives police new powers to tackle terrorism, The Register reports. It says the government introduced the measures “to crack down on terrorist activities in the aftermath of attacks in London and Manchester in 2017”.

In addition to introducing tighter restrictions on accessing online content relating to Islamic State (Isis) propaganda or similar groups, the new law allows the home secretary to ban British nationals from travelling to – or remaining in – specific designated areas.

Idlib province in northwestern Syria and other areas in the northeast of the country have been singled out as the first regions to be subjected to the new powers, amid what Sky News calls an “upsurge in violence around Idlib in particular” where Russian-backed Syrian government forces have launched an offensive against rebel fighters.

The Times reports that those in the areas in question “will be expected to make their own way to Turkey or Iraq”. This would involve crossing some of the most dangerous border regions in the world.

Anyone who remains in Syria for longer than 28 days will need to belong to groups exempt from the law, such as journalists conducting research.

Why is the new law controversial?

Although travel to a country in the grip of one of the most brutal wars of the 21st century may seem an improbable occurrence, many people do still visit Syria for personal and business reasons.

As a result, some believe the law is unenforceable and infringes on the rights of UK citizens.

The advocacy group Liberty says the bill poses “several significant threats to civil liberties and human rights” and is “symptomatic of a poorly conceived strategy that mistakes unreflective expansion of government power for evidence-driven responses to national security concerns”.

“People travelling to visit family, conduct research, document human rights abuses or undertake humanitarian relief could all be criminalised by this offence,” the organisation adds. “Faced with up to ten years in prison should their reasonable excuse be found wanting, some people will simply opt not to travel, which would have a chilling effect on family relationships, academic inquiry, investigative journalism and acts of solidarity.”

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has gone so far as to state that it doubts “whether, as currently drafted, the bill is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Furthermore, The Times says that although people detained in Syria will be deemed unable to leave, “the position of those in refugee camps is less clear”.

Is travel to Syria safe?

No. Despite the Home Office declaring that Idlib and northeastern Syria are off-limits by law, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) continues to advise against all travel to Syria, stating that the situation in the country remains “extremely volatile and dangerous”. It also suggests that anyone currently in Syria should try to leave immediately.

“High levels of violence persist throughout Syria, including full scale military operations involving the use of small arms, tanks, artillery and aircraft,” the FCO adds. “Estimates suggest that over 470,000 people have been killed in the Syria conflict, including over 55,000 children.”

The US State Department (DOS) puts this even more strongly, suggesting that if any US citizens decide that travel to Syria is absolutely necessary, they should draft a will and then make plans with their loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.) and funeral wishes.

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