The case of Shamima Begum

If the U.K. goes with the exclusionary instinct of an angry public, it will be dangerous for democracy

February 26, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

“The fact that Shamima Begum admitted to having no regrets leaving the U.K. is not surprising given that she lives in a refugee camp that is home to many Islamic State sympathisers.” A picture of Begum. REUTERS

“The fact that Shamima Begum admitted to having no regrets leaving the U.K. is not surprising given that she lives in a refugee camp that is home to many Islamic State sympathisers.” A picture of Begum. REUTERS

In February 2015, three British schoolgirls from East London, aged between 15 and 16, took a flight to Istanbul and then Syria. They had told their parents they were going out for a day, but they didn’t return. While their worried families went to Turkey in March to find out what happened to them, the disappearance of the girls sparked a national conversation on how young men and women in the U.K. were leaving for Syria and Iraq, often unbeknown to their families, to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups.

Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee shortly after the girls disappeared, the then Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Mark Rowley, spelt out what appeared to be Britain’s approach: “If you have been innocently duped, you travelled to a war zone and you regretted it and you have come back, there is nothing criminal or terrorist in that. Clearly, if you have taken part in terrorism... then we are going to do everything we can to make sure you face the consequence of that through the criminal justice process.” Britain has been contending with the issue of returnees for some time now. The government believes that of the 900 individuals who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join forces such as the IS, 40% have returned to the U.K., 20% have died, and 40% remain in the region.

Four years after the disappearance of the girls, The Times discovered one of them, Shamima Begum, in a Syrian refugee camp of 39,000 people. Heavily pregnant at 19 after having lost two children, Begum told the newspaper she had no regrets. She insisted that she was not the “silly” schoolgirl who ran away, but was still frightened. “Now all I want to do is come home to Britain,” she said.

The question of citizenship

The story created an uproar in Britain; tabloids raged at her “unrepentant” attitude. The government swiftly ratcheted up its response. While the Security Minister initially insisted that no British lives would be put at risk to “go looking for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state,” it soon emerged that the authorities were determined to withdraw Begum’s British citizenship. Under the British Nationality Act of 1981, the Secretary of State has the power to deprive a person of citizenship on the grounds that it is “conducive to the public good” and that the person would not be rendered stateless. The government believes that Begum either currently holds Bangladeshi citizenship or is eligible to apply for one. Begum and the Bangladesh government deny that she holds dual citizenship, and Bangladesh has even firmly said that there is “no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.” This suggests that Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to strip Begum of her citizenship would render her stateless. Her family is considering legal options to challenge this decision. While deploring her conduct and comments to the media, her sister wrote in a letter to Mr. Javid that it is not possible for the family to abandon her either.

The issue has deeply divided Britain. On the one hand, the right-wing has sought to use the controversy to add to the narrative that it has often resorted to: of a supposedly magnanimous, set upon Britain, apt to be exploited by rogue individuals such as an impudent “jihadi bride”. To this effect, many have attacked Begum’s comments that revealed her shock at the Home Office’s decision. “Thank god, Sajid Javid grasped Shamima Begum is the one person uniting Britain – against her,” declared a columnist in The Telegraph , accusing some of attempting to turn her into the nation’s “sweetheart”. This is ludicrous, as everyone who opposes the Home Office’s decision unanimously agrees that that she must come back to face the judicial consequences, whatever they be.

Migration to Britain

To many others, this has highlighted the dangerous trajectory of British politics, where citizenship and the concept of belonging are under threat, and at the mercy of a capricious political system. Britain’s attitude to migrants has already been under great scrutiny over its treatment of the Windrush generation (Commonwealth citizens who were invited to Britain between 1948 and 1971 to help rebuild the country after World War II, and were wrongly treated as illegal immigrants and some even deported). The Begum controversy highlights how only those with foreign roots are at the risk of losing citizenship. A white Brit without foreign ancestry would have no recourse to other countries and would therefore not be stripped of her citizenship. This makes the situation particularly discriminatory.

It raises other ethical questions. One Conservative MP asked in Parliament: “In removing British citizenship, the Home Secretary is essentially saying, ‘She’s somebody else’s problem’, but... ‘Which other country is supposed to look after her on our behalf? Can you imagine the fury here if we took a French or Italian citizen who joined Islamic State?’” Others wonder about leaving a young woman, who could potentially do harm or radicalise others, in Syria, a country without resources and vulnerable to terrorist activity.

Through all this Mr. Javid has insisted that his decision is all about “keeping the country safe”. He has also questioned the capacity of Britain’s judicial system to hold Begum to account given that where she and others like her are is a “very lawless and dangerous place, so it is not always possible... to gather evidence of... activities that could be used to try to have a successful prosecution.” However, many in the law enforcement agencies disagree with this perspective. The head of Mi6, Alex Younger, told The Times that while those who returned did pose risks, they had the right to come back. Others have pointed to the mechanisms that exist for returnees, such as through the use of temporary exclusion orders that place conditions on their return and enable them to be monitored at home. Still others have noted that depriving Begum of her citizenship could send out the dangerous signal that Britain is playing into the hands of terrorist recruiters, who are eager to make minority communities in the U.K. feel isolated. However, it’s easy to see why Mr. Javid, widely seen as having prime ministerial ambitions, may disregard such considerations: A recent Sky News poll suggested that 76% of the public are in favour of Begum not being allowed to return.

What Begum did during her time with the ‘Caliphate’ and the extent to which she continues to sympathise with the IS is not known. The fact that she admitted to having no regrets is hardly a surprise given that she remains in a refugee camp that is home to many IS sympathisers. But if the starting point is to just go with the punitive instinct of an angry public and deprive a young woman, who was potentially brainwashed as a minor, of her fundamental rights, it is a dangerous time for democracy, due process and the rule of law.

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