Shamima Begum, together with her two classmates, traveled in 2015 from the UK through Turkey to Syria to join the Islamic State to become an ISIS bride. On the 10th day after arriving in Raqqa, 15 years old Begum got married to a Dutch fighter, Yago Riedijk. Her story got the attention of the UK and worldwide media for the first time in 2015 when her family pleaded for her return. Consequently, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police announced that the Bethnal Green Trio (a term coined by British media used to refer to those three teenagers, who studied at Bethnal Green Academy) could safely return to the UK, without having to face terrorism charges as they were all still legally children under the UK law at that time. Back in 2015, a part of the public was sympathetic with the girls, because they were to a certain part presented as child victims of online child grooming.
This case got even bigger attention in 2019 when ISIS collapsed and lost almost all of its territory. At this time, the moods of the public have shifted, after nine months pregnant Shamima was discovered by journalist Anthony Loyd at the al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria. She wished to be brought back to the UK to be able to save and provide healthcare for her unborn child (her two other children died before meeting Loyd). In the following interviews, she failed to express regrets for the actions of IS, which helped change the moods of the public opinions and discourse.
On February 19th, 2019, Sajid Javid announced that Shamima Begum will be stripped of her citizenship: “[t]he first duty of the government, and my highest priority as Home Secretary, is to protect the public”, he claimed, making a threat out of Begum in the eyes of the public. There was a lot of support from the public in the UK for the government’s decision to revoke her citizenship, but on the other hand, concerns of what the decision means were equally substantial. Those worries were in place because citizenship stripping leaves people trapped in dangerous places and leaves them vulnerable without diplomatic support.
Shamima Begum was a British national. Notwithstanding, her citizenship has been revoked. Javid argued that even though Begum is British by jus soli, her parents are Bangladeshi, which entitles her to be a Bangladeshi citizen by jus sanguinis. Bangladeshi foreign ministry promptly refused these claims, adding that she might be hanged if she crossed the border for her involvement in a terrorist group. “She is a British citizen by birth and has never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh. There is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh,”.
After Shamima Begum’s citizenship was canceled on security grounds, Daniel Furner, Begum’s solicitor, appealed in the court against this decision. Begum’s team of lawyers argued that under international law it is illegal to deprive her of her nationality, building the case on three arguments:
- Under international law, it is unlawful and illegal to leave her stateless, as she is not eligible for other citizenship,
- The rulings of the courts are exposing her to a serious risk of inhuman and degrading treatment, which could lead to death
- She is not able to effectively challenge the decision made by the courts while she is in the detention camp, unable to return to the UK.
In July 2020, The Court of Appeal decided that Begum should be allowed to return to the UK to fight for her British citizenship. They also ruled that she has been denied a fair hearing. “Fairness and justice must, on the facts of this case, outweigh the national security concerns,” said judge Lord Flaux. This decision was met with a large dissatisfaction of the Government, which is why the Home Office appealed to the Supreme Court against this verdict, arguing that her arrival would represent “significant national security risks”.
At the beginning of 2021, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Government should prevent Begum from returning to the UK. This ruling means that currently, 21-years-old Begum will not be able to return to the UK to fight for her citizenship. Thus, the Supreme Court has paused the entire case because of Begum’s “uniquely dangerous situation” in the detention camp, until she is in a safer position to appeal. It gives her hope that she could have a final appeal if she is ever in a better, safer position. This situation, however, seems to be very unlikely in the short period, as she is currently not even able to communicate with her team of lawyers because of the camp’s conditions.
The questions arising from Shamima Begum’s case are not only concerned with morality, ethics, and responsibility but also with the legality of the British parliament’s decision to strip Begum of her only citizenship, leaving her stateless. The UK Home Office breached Article 15 of the UDHR and Section 40 in the 1981 British Nationality Act by revoking her citizenship. I argue that the UK Government was only trying to abdicate the responsibility towards their citizen to another nation-state – Bangladesh, not taking into consideration Begum’s past (the age when she got radicalized in the UK – why nobody noticed it? Are tools against radicalization of the youth and recruitment to terrorist organizations in the UK effective?) or future life (What will happen to her once she is stateless?).
I argue that no, the UK government was not justified to do that. The government’s renunciation of responsibility results in the failure to properly handle Begum’s case by international law, therefore, subjecting one of its citizens to potential rights abuses in Syria. The negligence for international obligations on the protection of their citizens shows us the prioritization of their interests masked as national security over individual rights, providing little (if not zero) empathy towards Begum. The right to a fair trial was deprived of her, which is something democratic governments are not entitled to do. Instead, she was framed by the media and politicians as deserving of exile and banishment, fuelling xenophobia and islamophobia in people.
Shamima Begum’s case is a tragic one. A teenage girl, who became radicalized and indoctrinated at the age of 15 for propaganda, child marriage, and participation in the terrorist organization, has ended up trapped in legal limbo, not able to do anything to help her case. The fact that she wants to come back shows us her willingness to face the law and pay for her mistakes. Despite that, the UK simply washed their hands of the person who was born and raised – even radicalized – in the very same country, trying to abdicate their responsibility to help her to another country. Now, she serves as a warning for all future recruits of what might happen if they decide to join a terrorist group.
Read: Shamima Begum, a Jihadi Bride, Caught in a Fight for her Own Citizenship – Part 2