Shamina Begum’s baby, Jarrah, died on Thursday 7th March in a Syrian refugee camp from pneumonia, according to a medical certificate. He was under three weeks old. Ms. Begum, who left East London aged just 15 in 2015 with two friends to join ISIS in Syria, recently had her British citizenship revoked by British Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Begum fled the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Baghaz when she was nine months pregnant with a hope of returning to the UK, after having already lost two children.
Javid now faces widespread criticism. Diane Abbott, a prominent member of the Labour party, has labeled the decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship and not offer support to her child as “callous and inhumane.” Similarly, Dal Babu, a former Met Police Chief Superintendent and a friend of the Begum family, has stated that “we’ve failed as a country to safeguard the child…this was an entirely avoidable death of a British citizen.” This emphasis on a failure of moral duty to protect the child has also been voiced by Kirsty McNeil, head of policy, advocacy and campaigns for the charity Save the Children: “all children associated with IS are victim…the UK and other countries of origin must take responsibility for their citizens inside north-east Syria.” The UK Government has acknowledged that the death of Begum’s child is ‘tragic’ and emphasizes their efforts since 2011 to warn people not to travel to Syria and of the dangers of traveling into “dangerous conflict zones.” On Friday, Javid said, “I have nothing but sympathy for the children that have been dragged into this…this is a reminder of why it is so, so dangerous for anyone to be in this war zone.”
Regardless of opinions about Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship, the focus of this news story must remain on the innocent child who died. Furthermore, Javid is right to draw attention to the fact that Begum’s baby is one of many children dying in Syrian refugee camps as thousands of women and children flee Baghaz. BBC Middle East Correspondent, Quentin Sommerville, has described conditions in the camps as ‘pretty appalling’; there is no heating in the camps, and no stoves in tents to keep people warm at night as temperatures drop to 3 or 4 degrees. The former foreign secretary, David Miliband, has described how 12,000 women and children have flooded the camps with many “traumatized as well as deeply malnourished.” The result of this is that over 100 people have reportedly died the last three months; two-thirds of these deaths were children under the age of 5. Begum’s baby was innocent in this conflict and his death was tragic. However, this event should not be used primarily as a reason to attack the British Home Secretary but rather as a spotlight on the poor conditions many other children are still facing in Syrian refugee camps. The UK government has pledged this week to donate an extra £100 million for Syrian aid this year, bringing the 2019 total to £400 million. This money will be used to support the 6.2million people internally displaced in the country, helping to provide clean water, food, shelter, and emergency medical supplies. The international community must be aware of the scale of the burden placed on refugee camps in Syria and provide the support necessary for the women and children fleeing ISIS.
Ms. Begum was found in a refugee camp in Syria in February by a Times journalist after she had fled Baghuz where she had been living under ISIS with her Dutch husband. In an interview with Quentin Sommerville last month she said “I don’t want to lose this baby as well…this [camp] is really not a place to raise children.” Whilst she maintained her belief in ISIS ideology, she claimed that she had not asked to be made into a ‘poster girl’ for ISIS and instead blamed this on the media. Begum is just one of many vulnerable women in the camps. During a ten-day truce in February, an estimated 9000 women and children arrived from Baghuz as the U.S.-led coalition continues its offensive against the final ‘caliphate’ territory.
Begum’s story and the tragic death of her baby have caused much controversy and heated debate in the UK. However, attention should not be focused solely on this individual case but rather we should use it as an eye-opener for the unacceptable conditions that vulnerable women and children are facing as ISIS continues to collapse. If more aid isn’t offered, the number of innocent victims of the civil war dying will only increase.