Exile in the Modern Age: The Case of Shamima Begum

Shamina Begum, PA

Shamina Begum in 2015, courtesy of PA via BBC News

In 2015, at the age of 15, the second-generation Bethnal Green local was radicalised and coaxed into abandoning her home to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State. Within two weeks she was married to 23-year-old Dutch convert, Yago Riedijk. Over the coming years she would lose two children before giving birth on the 17th of February 2019 to her third. She spent her time in the IS controlled city of Raqqa until it fell in 2017, witnessing the her husband’s surrender; she now sits in a refugee camp with her newborn son. Her hopes of being able to return to the UK have been met with clear dismissal by the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, who has gone so far as to revoke her citizenship. The case of Shamima Begum is a polarising situation, making it hard to avoid getting emotional and losing objectivity. There is a clear conflict between those who empathise with the age of Ms Begum and those are afraid of the possible threat she could be to national security. However, let’s analyse the legality and consequences of the removal of her citizenship, as well as the connotations this has on all British citizens.

Javid’s act functioned in accordance with the British Nationality Act of 1981, whereby the Secretary of State may deprive a person of citizenship if it is conducive to the public good. This is clearly a vague requisite for the removal of one’s citizenship. One can see Javid’s reasoning clearly: disregarding their specific role within that organisation, he condemned all those who were part of the terrorist organisation that conducted or influenced horrendous acts of violence in the United Kingdom in 2017. Yet, as stated by British barrister Lord Anderson, this power is “normally used on people who are serious terrorists or serious criminals, but we don’t know how serious this woman’s criminality was in Syria.”

The crux of the matter is that Javid’s decision will leave Ms Begum stateless, she will now be one of approximately 10 million other people. She neither is, nor will be, a citizen of Bangladesh, like her parents, and as advocated for by Javid. Nor will she be made a citizen of Holland, as desired by her husband. Being stateless will inevitably render Ms Begum vulnerable to gross human rights violations, for in many states nationality is a practical prerequisite for accessing political and judicial processes and for obtaining economic, social, and cultural rights. As a result, she will not be tried by the British judicial system for the acts she is accused of. What makes the matter more questionable is how UK courts are specifically equipped to deal with returning fighters and sympathisers. Therefore, Ms Begum has been stripped of her right to trial due to her ideological positioning, as well as Javid’s belief that there is insufficient evidence to bring to a prosecution.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.” In accordance with this, the British government updated UK citizenship laws in 2014, permitting removal only if the person could become a citizen of another country. As previously stated, alternative citizenship is not possible for Ms Begum, so her parents have valid reasoning for challenging the Home Secretary’s decision. Javid has also faced criticism that he was seeking to exploit populist feeling without proper attention to the law, undermining his reasoning around making her stateless as well as his desire for Bangladesh to resolve the issue rather than the UK.

The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires states “to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory… without distinction of any kind, such as race, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Though Ms Begum’s case is extreme, her time with IS was undoubtedly driven partially by her ideology show by her statements in her interview with the times, “When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam.” Yet, a radical ideology is not reason enough to remove a citizenship. A further reason for her departure must be noted: she stated that “My family wouldn’t help me get married in the UK and the way they showed family life in IS was pretty nice.” So one cannot merely condone her behaviour as ideological, as stated by former Met Police Chief Superintendent Dal Babu; in fact, the impact of her interaction with IS could be deemed as “sexual exploitation as well as ideological grooming.” If this is the case, it should be the duty of the British state to take responsibility for its inability to prevent such an act from happening, not to pin the entire affair on the actions of a teenager.

It has been argued that the practice of depriving citizenship from naturalised citizens is discriminatory because it creates a lesser class of citizens. The classification of those ‘lesser citizens’ who hold radical thoughts propagates the feelings of isolation and separation that encourage young individuals to fall victim to radical agendas. Thus, rather than acting as a deterrent, it can be argued that Ms Begum’s exile will encourage the radicalisation it seeks to stem, and provide ideological ammunition for radical agendas. This is particularly relevant to those who are second-generation citizens, as even though they were born in the United Kingdom, it would appear that their position in the state is more tentative than others.

In summary, in accordance with the rights of a British citizen Ms Begum should be brought back to the UK and tried for her actions by the judicial system. Yet there is still another layer to this matter – the Home Secretary ultimately stripped a UK citizen of her rights in an appeal to populism due to radical ideological differences. Does this imply that all of our citizenships are conditional? Regardless of Ms Begum’s innocence or guilt, and regardless of her ideology or religion, she should not be denied the trial that she is entitled to –nor should she be cast into the treacherous world of statelessness.

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