Citizenship and statelessness: the case of Shamima Begum

Citizenship and statelessness: the case of Shamima Begum

Shamima Begum has dominated headlines since she was discovered in al-Hawl, a sprawling Syrian refugee camp, earlier this year. Her discovery has invigorated both the curiosity and disgust of a nation, as the UK steeled itself against the horrific details surrounding her disappearance.

As one of the four Bethnal Green girls who left the UK to join ISIS fighters in 2015, her choice to go to Syria as a jihadist bride evades modern sensibilities. Discovered by Anthony Loyd, Times journalist, Begum explained the quick course of her indoctrination, relaying the terrible sights she had encountered; recalling the nothingness she felt at witnessing a severed head in a dustbin, and her personal regret that she was not brave enough to remain in the caliphate once defeat looked inevitable. As the UK wrestles with her first unremorseful first interview, questions over her British citizenship continue rage, as politics, law and morality collide. 

Her story has sparked widespread revulsion, not least because her desire to return to the UK is still underscored by an allegiance to the caliphate she was forced to abandon. This revelation prompted UK wide outrage, and the mobilisation of political activism— following her first interview, over 500,000 people signed a petition calling for her citizenship to be stripped. On February 19th Sajid Javid revoked the British citizenship of Begum, calling on the Bangladeshi government to take up Begum as a citizen (Begum’s mother is a dual national of both Britain and Bangladesh) to little success. The country’s minister for state of foreign affairs, Shahriar Alam denied this assertion, saying Begum was ‘nothing to do with Bangladesh’.

As pundits continue to discuss the legitimacy of Javid’s decision, and speculate over the success of the appeal and judicial review launched by Begum’s family, we examine the relationship between state and citizen and the haze of statelessness that wrests Begum.   

Returning ‘home’

Despite Begum’s desire to return to the UK and ‘live quietly’, this does not appear to be a possible reality for the teenager. Javid has been clear in his revocation of her British citizenship, arguing that this decision will not render her stateless as it is still possible for Begum to seek citizenship in Bangladesh—despite the protestations of that country.

While Javid is determined that Begum should not return to Britain, the matter is more complex, and historical legal decision is not in his favour. In an article released by The Telegraph, it was reported that more than 900 individuals of national security concern from the UK have travelled to engage with the conflict in Syria. Of these, around 40% have returned to the UK, and a greater majority of these individuals are no longer considered a threat to national security after being re-integrated into UK life. While a great deal of these individuals returned in the earlier stages of the fighting, none have received the same ire that has greeted Begum and have been able to be restored to life in the UK.

What seems to separate these individuals from Begum is the platform she—perhaps unwittingly—garnered from The Times’ investigations. This interview provided amplification for an unfiltered account of her experience of ISIS, ultimately providing a vessel for the fears of a nation and a voice that went some way to confirming the fears of many: that those who return from ISIS will never be capable of deradicalization.

The situation is made more complex by recent evidence and reports that undermine Ms Begum’s initial testimony that positioned her as a housewife of ISIS rather than an active participant. While Begum has insisted upon her position as a housewife of ISIS, in an article released by The Telegraph on 13th April, it was discovered that Begum took on a more active role in enforcing ISIS brutality. Confirmed by two separate sources, The Telegraph reported that Begum graduated into the notorious “Khansaa Batalion” (an all-female police squad) following three months of training. Enrolment into this squad provided elevated status within the caliphate, and an opportunity to enforce ISIS law. This comes in conjunction with reports that Ms Begum sent messages to other young girls in order to recruit them, violating UK terrorism laws.

As a criminal case builds against Begum, her citizenship appeal is in ever greater jeopardy. Under the 1981 British Nationality Act, a person can be deprived of their citizenship if the home secretary is satisfied it would be "conducive to the public good" and they would not become stateless as a result. With Javid determined that Begum could achieve Bangladeshi status without ever inhabiting or visiting that country, it is up to the courts to determine whether Begum’s right to citizenship would be satisfied on this point.

While the decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship was unilateral, she is in a position to utilise the UK legal aid service without deterrent or intervention from the government to challenge the decision. Despite Jeremy Hunt saying such a decision would make him “uncomfortable” it is not unusual in these circumstances to utilise the legal aid service. In order to overturn the decision, Ms Begum would need to bring legal challenge against the Home secretary, which would be heard in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. If Ms Begum disagreed with the resulting panel decision, she would be empowered to appeal the result to the UK Supreme Court.

Although Begum’s solicitor is keen to advance the case, it doesn’t appear that the teenager will be flying home soon, as it could be months if not years before her case reaches Siac. There still remains a chance that the teenager could be blockaded from citizenship by the court, and Javid’s decision will be upheld. There is certainly precedence for this decision: over the past 5 years, increasing numbers of individuals have been stripped of their UK citizenship. In 2017 104 UK nationals were stripped of their citizenship compared to only 14 people in 2016.

Despite Javid’s commitment that Begum should not have her citizenship restored there is a compelling argument that suggests Begum should be brought back to the UK to have justice completed here—whatever that may entail. Whilst it is doubtless troubling to reconcile Begum’s decisions, as a democratised country, we are compelled to uphold the rule of law and ensure that no one is excluded from the grasp of justice, no matter how abhorrent their choices…

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About the author:
Catherine is one of the Future of Law's digital editors. She graduated from Durham University with a degree in English Literature and worked at a barristers chambers before joining Lexis Nexis.