Shamima Begum, Statelessness And The Rule of Law

In February 2015, 15-year-old Shamima Begum was one of three girls from Bethnal Green, London, to fly to Syria and join the fundamentalist group Islamic State (IS). Begum was then married to a Dutch member of IS with whom she had two children, a son and a daughter. Much of her life was spent on the move throughout the country as Syrian Democratic Forces continued to push IS further back. During these moves, access to supplies and medical treatment was so scarce that both of her children died.

A few weeks ago, Begum was found in a refugee camp in north-eastern Syria by a journalist for The Times. Heavily pregnant for the third time, the now 19-year-old gave an interview in which she spoke of her desperation to return to Britain. “I really don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to take care of my child in this camp, because I’m afraid he might even die in this camp,” Begum told the reporter, imploring people to “have sympathy” towards her.

However, her simultaneous acceptance of the atrocities carried out by IS was jarring. Ultimately, Begum stated that she had no regrets for making the journey to live under the organization in Syria and that her desire to return to Britain was primarily for the benefit of her unborn child.

The interview immediately sparked intense political scrutiny and media debate. The British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, reacted by stating that he would do all he could to prevent the 19-year-old from returning to the UK to raise her child. A few days after Begum gave birth to a son, Javid acted by using article 40 of the 1891 British Nationality Act  to deprive her permanently of her British citizenship. A Sky News poll reported on Wednesday that 78% of Britons supported his decision to do so.

Begum’s decision to travel to Syria and join IS in 2015 is difficult for many people to understand, and is a choice clearly deemed unforgivable by the 78% of people who support Javid’s actions. Sympathy is certainly hard to muster when reading the more unrepentant parts of her interview.

However, ideas of agency and consent are also important ones in this case. The extent to which 15-year-old Begum knew what she was doing when she began her journey in 2015 is debatable, and the presence of consent in her three pregnancies is unclear. Debate continues on whether Begum should be considered as a naïve child, targeted as a victim of extremist online grooming, or a young woman at the age of criminal responsibility, fully aware of her actions.

Regardless of these characterizations, Begum’s current situation remains unchanged. Although her mother is of Bangaldeshi heritage, the country’s government has stated that it does not recognize Begum herself as a citizen and would therefore not accept her. As neither British nor Bangladeshi, and caring for a newborn in a Syrian refugee camp, Shamima Begum has been rendered stateless.

The international human rights barrister Philippe Sands QC described the case a “humongous mess” and “completely incompetent.” He also said: “Making a person stateless has huge consequences and we should not be playing around with people’s futures.” Joining the criticism, the British Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has described the revocation as “extreme,” claiming that Begum does have a right to return to the UK.

Various pieces of international legislation describe nationality as a human right: Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, is specific in stating that acting deliberately to make somebody stateless is prohibited.

Indeed, statelessness as a position raises a number of problems. Primarily, the responsibility for the actions of individuals born in one country is shifted to the country in which they find themselves. Shamima Begum spent fifteen formative years of her life in the United Kingdom: she was born, raised, and educated in London. She was also radicalized in London, and made her first contact with IS while a British citizen. In order to feel like Syria and IS were desirable alternatives, she must have felt somewhat rejected by Britain. Her case is therefore a problem of the country’s own making more than it is of Syria’s, where Begum now resides. Refusing to acknowledge Begum’s British citizenship, however, makes her Syria’s responsibility.

It is also unclear where Begum’s new legal status leaves her one-week-old son. Although Sajid Javid told the House of Commons that the children of IS members would not lose their British citizenship, it is hard to see the implications for this while his mother is deprived of hers. Most public opinion is in agreement on the fact that an innocent child should not be punished for the actions of their parents. His rights as a British citizen, however, are difficult to enforce while he is only one-week old and residing in Syria alongside his stateless mother.

Rendering Begum stateless as a supposed act of British retribution for choosing to join IS also fails to align itself with techniques of counter-radicalisation. IS strongly promulgates an ‘us and them’ narrative, one that Begum is likely to have encountered whilst living in Britain. IS propaganda focuses on ‘the West’ as a mortal enemy with whom war will always be bloody and inevitable. Depriving Shemima Begum permanently of her British citizenship, despite her plea for mercy, only speaks further to this narrative. In doing so, Javid has cast her as permanently and irreversibly ‘other’: this is similar to how she must have been encouraged to feel in Bethnal Green in 2015.

Most importantly, however, successful counter-radicalisation techniques operate by due process and the rule of law. These are the fundamental tenets upon which British society and democracy is supposed to operate. Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer representing Begum’s family, has said that attempts to deny due process to Begum would mean that she was undergoing treatment worse than Nazi war criminals who were allowed the Nuremberg trials in 1945.

It is unclear whether Begum engaged in criminal acts while in Syria. She maintains that she was a ‘housewife’ for the duration of her time there, and did nothing for which she could face criminal responsibility. The best possible way of ascertaining the level of her culpability, and the prospects of her rehabilitation, would be best served in this country, in courts of law, and through extensive de-radicalisation programmes.

It is these principles of due process and the rule of law that protect populations from despotism and oppression, and which prevent societies from spiralling into Orwellian landscapes in which governments can act to excess with no accountability. Sajid Javid defended his decision to deprive Shamima Begum of her British citizenship as one made out of concern for ‘the safety and security of children living in our country’. In doing so, he failed to recognise that his action against the entrenched legal processes in this country was actually doing the opposite.

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