One of three schoolgirls who fled London to join so-called Islamic State in 2015 has been found by a UK newspaper in a Syrian refugee camp. Her family wants the government's help to return her to the UK, while the government is saying it won't do this.

The British Embassy in Syria has been suspended since 2012, and the government is saying that Brits in Syria who need assistance should contact the Embassy in Lebanon (Source).

Putting aside their reasons for going there, in what ways, if any, would the UK government be obliged to assist a British citizen in a country like Syria? Would they be obliged to, for example, assist them to reach the nearest embassy, or to provide documentation that allows them to board a flight back? Or can the government leave them to fend for themselves, as travel advice has clearly stated for years not to go there?

  • 1
    Are you asking about the British in particular? I doubt there are rules as to what each country must do for citizens. General rules like the Vienna convention don't provide such rights for citizens.
    – JJJ
    Feb 17, 2019 at 9:33
  • I'm talking in terms of international law (and have tagged it accordingly).
    – Joe C
    Feb 17, 2019 at 9:56
  • 2
    The only mandatory assistance that I can think about would be providing identity papers, out of international laws against the creation of stateless people, and those arising for laws about refugees.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 17, 2019 at 12:03
  • On a point of pedantry, assistance to your own citizens in a foreign country is provided by a consulate. Consulates often share buildings and staff with embassies, but they're not the same thing. Feb 19, 2019 at 8:42

3 Answers 3


There are two pertinent clauses in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to a nationality.

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return

Now, while the UDHR is not binding international law, it does describe a set of international norms and principles, some of which are codified into other treaties in greater detail.

Put together, these mean that the UK (or any other nation) cannot prevent one of their citizens from returning to the UK. However nothing in the UDHR, or any other document I can find, places any positive duties on a country to expedite the return or assist one of their citizens in any particular way, except to provide her with a nationality (and documentation of that nationality such as a passport, subject to the usual fees)

There is another clause that is relevant

Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.

The UDHR doesn't go further, or define how mothers should be treated specially, as noted, the UDHR is not a legal text. But in this particular case, in which the subject is both a mother and was a child when she left the UK, the UDHR suggests that a nation should consider if she is deserving of special treatment.

  • Could you please expand the last part? It's unclear to me why Motherhood and Childhood are relevant in this case. (I expect that clause to be about breastfeeding and toddlers and so on, and the special care they need)
    – Sjoerd
    Feb 18, 2019 at 0:05
  • 1
    The UDHR is vague on what it means here. It says nothing about breastfeeding or what special treatment mothers may require. I think it is just a hint that when a balance of rights is being considered, the status as a mother should be taken into consideration.
    – James K
    Feb 18, 2019 at 21:48

The idea is the same as in James K's answer but from a different angle, and also more general and independent of the specific example you're asking about:

Whether there is an embassy nearby is completely irrelevant to the obligations of the citizen's country of origin.

An embassy is just - usually - how the caring for citizens is administered because it is the easiest way and people are already (roughly) where needed. The presence of an embassy (or consulate for larger countries) nearby is not, however, a determining factor for the question of whether a nation has to care for its citizens at all.

This is - depending on your view on human rights & international law - determined by the UDHR, other human rights declarations or UN-treaties (that the country in question may or may not have signed), the nations constitution or other laws which a country or it's officials might amend, ignore or follow through on.

So it really depends to what extend and in what contexts a country HAS TO aid its citizens and the help provided will vary widely from country to country and case to case, but in general the presence of an embassy will not make a huge difference in this decision.


The UK government has very few obligations; it may at its discretion offer help, and the amount of help it offers will depend on whether there is consular service or other diplomatic staff available in that country.

The British government's guidance on consular assistance is here.

It states that "the provision of consular assistance is at our discretion" and they say: "We expect British nationals to take responsibility for themselves and their safety while abroad." Many services are not free, e.g. providing identity documents.

Typical services it provides include support for people who are the victims of crime; information on interpreters and lawyers and prison visits; limited support in case of a death overseas (mainly information and notification of relatives); emergency travel documents; and some notarization services.

It also notes that assistance will be limited if "you need help in a country where we have no diplomatic or consular presence".

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .