The case of Shamima Begum has rocked the British headlines over recent weeks. The Bethnal Green teenager left the UK in 2015 at the age of 15 with her two friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase. The CCTV picture of the trio seeking to join Daesh (also known as ISIS) in Syria was all over the media. Now, Kadiza Sultana is dead and Amira Abase is missing. As for Shamima Begum, she is 19, a new mother, and she is seeking a return to the UK.
Ms Begum is now living in a Kurdish-held refugee camp in northern Syria and has given birth to her son just last week. Ms Begum lost two children whilst living in the camp – reportedly through malnourishment – and has been appealing to come back to the United Kingdom since during her pregnancy.
Ms Begum has given a series of interviews to journalists from the Syrian camp, which have been met with a negative response in the UK. Ms Begum has been criticised for her ‘apparent lack of remorse’ and believing the Manchester bombings were ‘justified’. The justification, Begum claims, is that civilians have been killed in the Middle East with a similar lack of remorse.
Sajid Javid has responded to her pleas by announcing he will seek to revoke her British citizenship in a letter addressed to her family. Begum has the right to appeal this decision and the family lawyer has indicated that they intend to do so. The letter was issued after the birth of Ms Begum’s son, who remains a British citizen, albeit lacking the appropriate documentation. This move to revoke Ms Begum’s citizenship has been met with mixed reactions. The home secretary’s actions have been criticised as populist, as the decision to remove Begum’s citizenship seems to be based in response to the public’s antipathy for Begum, rather than sound legal advice.
According to the UN Human Rights Charter, ‘everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country’ (Article 13), and ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality’ (Article 15). To strip Ms Begum of her nationality renders her effectively stateless, which is illegal in international law. An argument, however, has been made by the home office that Ms Begum is in fact of a dual nationality, as both her parents are Bengali. In contrary to these statements, the government of Bangladesh have published a statement denying Begum’s citizenship and the possibility of her going to Bangladesh. Some legal experts argue that according to the law in Bangladesh, all those born to Bengali nationals become citizens by default. Others argue Ms Begum would only be a Bengali citizen had she been registered with the appropriate authority at birth – a practice uncommon among the British-Bengali community.
If Ms Begum has in fact inherited her parent’s citizenship, it will cease at 21 unless active effort has been made to retain it. At 19, there is the potential she is a Bengali citizen, in which case the Home Secretary’s decision does not – in strict legal terms – make her stateless. Yet she might be de facto stateless – unable to access the documentations, social security framework of Bangladesh, or utilise the benefits of her citizenship in another way. Ms Begum has indicated that failing to succeed in her effort to return to Britain, she might attempt for Dutch citizenship – as her husband – a Daesh fighter believed to be held by the YPG forces – is a Dutch national.
When discussing the case of Ms Begum, the conversation often spills into the topics of morality and British values. According to pundits, Ms Begum has betrayed British values by not only leaving to join Daesh, but more importantly by failing to express regret over this decision. Her implied comparisons between the UK airstrikes in Syria and the Manchester bombings have also seriously damaged her public profile.
However, Ms Begum has been born in the UK and has never been to Bangladesh. This fact creates an unsavoury connection with the cases of those implicated by the Windrush scandal, that has seen many British citizens deported to countries they have never visited. As only the children of immigrants can have their citizenship withdrawn, the policy is inherently discriminatory. In a case of a white British person whom decided to join a terrorist organisation, the Home Office would have been unable to wash their hands over the case – but would be forced to take responsibility for their citizen and subject them to the due process of law. Ms Begum is a British citizen. She is our responsibility. Begum is a product of home-grown terrorists, and we cannot wash our hands of her and force another country to clean up our mess.
Ms Begum’s decision to join a terrorist organisation was made as a child of 15. It had also been made by a British citizen with the right to a fair trial. It should be up to the British courts to judge Ms Begum’s case, rather have her destiny decided by a politician following a trial by the media. In an interview on ITV Macer Gifford, a former currency trader who joined the YPG Kurdish militia fighting Daesh, spoke of the ‘privilege of being British’. This privilege seems to be only protected for white Britons, whilst Asian-British, as well as the descendants of the Commonwealth are disproportionally affected by the potential of their citizenship being revoked, often for low-lever criminal offences and in Ms Begum’s case without a conviction altogether.
It is understood that Sajid Javid believes the section 40(2) of the British Nationality Act 1981 gives the Home Secretary the power to strip Ms Begum of her citizenship. Ms Begum’s family is expected to appeal the decision. The appeal will start a lengthy process during which Ms Begum will most likely remain in the refugee camp, which she has repeatedly said was an unfit environment to raise her child – a British citizen. The case, whilst legally complex, seems to reflect the media frenzy surrounding Ms Begum’s controversial statements, the perception of her morality, and lack of British values. Britain however has a responsibility to her citizens and cannot run away from this issue, of which more cases are expected to arise.
[Image credit: BBC / Screengrab]