British police and border guards at ports and airports are employing the Prevent programme, introduced in 2011 to identify would-be terrorists, to harass hundreds of English schoolchildren who display badges or wear Keffiyeh indicating solidarity with Palestine. Practically all of them are children of Muslim families. Police spokesmen insist that merely displaying Palestinian colours or solidarity demonstrations would not trigger the operation of Prevent strategies. But according to reports in Open Democracy, that is precisely what is happening. As they point out, the effects on the schoolchildren can be devastating.

Kids referred to counter-terror police amid crackdown on Palestine support

Advocacy group CAGE says more than 100 schoolchildren have come forward in two months over cases of “harsh repression”

Nandini Archer
15 January 2024, 12.52pm

Pro-Palestinian protesters at a ‘Global Day of Action’ for Gaza on Saturday in central London. Hundreds of thousands of people have marched peacefully calling for a ceasefire since October – but advocacy groups including CAGE and Prevent Watch say more than 100 children have been targeted with repression and censorship for expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments, with some referred to the government’s counter-terror programme Prevent.

More than a hundred schoolchildren and university students have faced “harsh repression and censorship” – including referrals to the government-led counter-terrorism programme Prevent – for displaying support for Palestine in the last three months, campaigners say.

openDemocracy has been alerted to reports from across the UK of schools allegedly telling pupils to remove badges, stickers and t-shirts that have “free Palestine” on them; alleged retaliatory measures against college students for tweeting support or joining pickets for Palestine; and claims about university exclusions, suspensions and investigations, as well as the cancellations of pro-Palestinian events.

Anas Mustapha, head of public advocacy at the group CAGE International, said the organisation had witnessed “high levels of repression of Palestine solidarity, with employers, teachers and police acting upon prejudice and increasingly disturbing levels of irrational intolerance”.

The Home Office told openDemocracy it has been “absolutely clear” that lawful protest or activism does not meet the threshold for a Prevent referral and said it was offering guidance to schools on how to manage political expression from students.

But CAGE, which works with communities impacted by the so-called ‘war on terror’, says that since the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, 130 people have contacted them concerning Palestine censorship in schools, colleges and universities – a 455% increase from their last report in 2021. The figure includes alleged referrals to Prevent.

Meanwhile, Layla Aitlhadj, director of the group Prevent Watch, told us the organisation had received more than 20 calls to its helpline since October, alongside its usual caseload, that were “specific to Prevent off the back of legitimate solidarity with Palestine”.

It is 20 years since the then Labour government introduced the counter-terrorism Prevent programme, whose stated purpose is “to stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”. It requires staff at schools, hospitals, councils and other institutions to refer anyone they believe is a potential future terrorist to the police – in the absence of any crime.

In practice, rights groups say it’s predominantly targeted at children with Muslim backgrounds, with neurodivergent and particularly autistic children, working class students, and religious, practising and politically outspoken children even more likely to be targeted.

openDemocracy identified numerous other cases of alleged state action being taken against minors for speaking about Palestine.

Last year, Akram* was reported to Prevent for attending a protest and writing a letter to a teacher explaining why.

He told us that he felt targeted for being Muslim, and that his school had allowed and even celebrated other displays of political expression – from support for Ukraine to the monarchy.

“My mental health has really deteriorated as a result of this,” said Akram, who added that he couldn’t sleep and was “terrified” of all authorities now, from the NHS to his own school.

In November, North Yorkshire police turned up on Tuğba İyigün’s doorstep and informed her that she’d been reported to Prevent for tweeting the popular pro-Palestine slogan: “From the river to the sea.”

“I was surprised,” she said. “I know this isn’t Turkey or China – it’s not officially a totalitarian regime.

“Prevent is discrimination which targets minorities and people from Muslim backgrounds. When I think about it, it’s no coincidence they picked me out of the many British people involved in the protests.”

İyigün is still waiting on the results of a subject access request to find out who reported her, which she submitted with support from Prevent Watch. She suspects it could be anyone at her university. Her local Labour MP Rachael Maskell wrote to the police who have now confirmed that they won’t be taking the referral any further.


Aitlhadj from Prevent Watch said: “There exists an extremely naive view that making misinformed Prevent referrals does not matter.”

By contrast, she added, a Prevent referral can leave a child with “trauma caused by being interrogated by counter terrorism officers” and “the processing of personal data and retention of such data across multiple criminal databases”.

Outside of cases involving support for Palestine, she said, one of the group’s recent clients is an eight-year-old boy who was interrogated during his lunch hour by two counter-terrorism officers and a social worker without the knowledge or consent of their parents, leaving him traumatised and distrusting of authorities.

Another client had his place at a prestigious sixth form withdrawn in September last year on the day he was due to begin, and was instead questioned about his referral to Prevent in 2021.

Ilyas Nagdee, racial justice director at Amnesty UK, said Prevent also caused a more wide-reaching issue of self-censorship, describing it as having “a chilling effect on the lives and freedoms of thousands of innocent people”.

He said that this included people “modifying their behaviour [and] refraining from joining campaigning groups and attending protests or expressing their religious and political views”.

report published by his team last year, which reviewed Prevent cases prior to 7 October and highlighted this “chilling effect”, said many students and teachers were wary of participating in the study in case they were flagged to Prevent.

“On certain topics, I tell my children to keep their opinions to themselves because there’s a profile that brown Muslim boys are terrorists: don’t say anything and don’t give your opinion,” Jasmine, a mother whose son was referred to Prevent in 2021, told Amnesty. Her son, 14-year-old Zain, was referred for joking about wanting the school to burn down during a fire drill.

Meanwhile, at the university level, the Prevent programme is reportedly used to cancel events and debates. Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said such interventions “create an atmosphere suggesting that this issue is something dangerous and confined to the margins”.

Eruption of violence

Days after the latest eruption of violence in Palestine in October, education ministers wrote directly to university vice chancellors across the country to specifically remind them of their duties under Prevent.

The National Education Union published guidance for teachers soon after, telling them to encourage discussions on Israel-Palestine but respect different viewpoints and be aware of potential abuse.

“The expression of pupils’ opinions may sometimes be forceful but in most cases it will not be appropriate to treat it as a matter for disciplinary sanction,” the NEU guidance reads.

Despite this, the Met’s counter-terrorism chief commander Dominic Murphy told London’s Evening Standard newspaper at the end of November that there had been a “substantial jump” in Prevent cases since 7 October. Official Home Office statistics on the numbers now being reported to Prevent won’t be released until November. Last year’s data, for the year ending 31 March 2023, already showed a 6% increase in Prevent referrals on the previous year.

In December, an east London primary school closed when parents protested outside its gates over the alleged reprimand of an eight-year-old boy for wearing a Palestine flag on his coat. One of the mothers claimed the school threatened to contact Prevent if they heard of parents sharing information on the war in private WhatsApp groups.

CAGE said it saw a similar wave of “harsh repression and censorship” last time violence escalated in the region back in May 2021. The 47 cases it reportedly worked on that year ranged from verbal reprimands and detentions to exclusions and Prevent referrals. By comparison, CAGE’s most recent report of cases from October to December features 118 in schools alone, with a total of 214 cases covering a broader spectrum from repression in protests to workplaces to mosques.

One of the organisation’s recent clients reported that their headteacher told them that saying “from the river to the sea” was “hurtful for Jews”, and that “no student could bring politics into the school”.

Another, a university student in London, was arrested by police for publishing a statement on social media in October that said: “The Palestinian people have every right to resist against the same colonial power that has taken everything away from them.” She was suspended on the basis that she “may have committed a criminal offence”. After CAGE’s inquiries, it is understood that the police have dropped any criminal charges.

“We’ve managed to resolve the vast majority of the recent cases we’ve handled and in many we’ve successfully overturned the penalties imposed and even secured apologies,” Mustapha added.

CAGE found that 209 of the 214 cases in its latest caseload involved Muslims. Mustapha called these cases “a reflection of the systemic Islamophobia, racism, and anti-Palestinian discrimination prevalent in segments of society and government”.

The latest Home Office statistics show a “worrying trend” of children becoming more prevalent in counter-terrorism casework, with 31% of cases under the age of 14. The year ending March 2023 saw a greater number of referrals relating to extreme right-wing (19%) terrorism concerns compared to Islamist extremism (11%) – a trend the Home Office says has continued over the last few years.

However, a controversial review into Prevent was published in February 2023, which was boycotted by 17 human rights and community groups over previous comments made by the independent reviewer William Shawcross calling Islam in Europe “one of the greatest, most terrifying problems of our future”. The review’s recommendations included returning Prevent to its roots in focusing on non-violent Islamic extremism. The government agreed to all recommendations and an update on its implementation is expected in March.

The government denies that Prevent is Islamophobic, with the Shawcross review stating: “The narrative portraying Prevent and wider counter extremism efforts as Islamophobic is a powerful and damaging one.” The then home secretary Suella Braverman said at the launch of a Prevent training programme in September that “extremist and anti-Prevent groups have waged mendacious and malicious campaigns to try and discredit Prevent as anti-Muslim to undermine its work”.

The Home Office said: “We have been absolutely clear that lawful protest or activism does not meet the threshold for Prevent referrals. At no point has the government advised referring an individual simply for showing support for Palestinians.

“We continue to work closely with schools to provide guidance and support on the ongoing conflict, including ensuring political expression by pupils is done sensitively and avoids feelings of intimidation or targeting for other pupils and staff.”

*Name has been changed

Editor’s note, 16 January 2024: This article has been amended to include an updated comment from the Home Office