Passing the buck: Shamima Begum is the UK’s responsibility
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
The case of Shamima Begum is not a simple one. Even when presented with all the facts, making an honest judgement on a young woman who has been abused and trafficked, yet remains unrepentant for many of the crimes she has purportedly committed, is ineffably difficult. Nevertheless, someone must make a decision, and to leave Begum stateless would be a detrimental mistake.
After she was discovered alive in a Syrian refugee camp in 2019, Shamima Begum, a young woman who was trafficked from the UK to Syria at the age of 15 to join ISIS and become a jihadi bride, was stripped of her British citizenship. The then-home secretary, Sajid Javid, utilised a royal prerogative, signed into legislation in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks and 7/7 London bombings, to strip Begum of her British citizenship. This prevented her from returning to the UK, in spite of her wishes. Begum and her lawyers lost their initial challenge in February 2020 but saw success in July of the same year as it was deemed that she should be allowed to return to the UK. This ruling, however, was then successfully challenged by the government, and recent rulings have seen the Special Immigration Appeals Committee upholding this decision. The revoking of Begum’s citizenship was done with the understanding that, through her parentage, Begum would be able to access Bangladeshi citizenship. However, at the time of the removal of her citizenship, Begum did not possess dual nationality, and Bangladesh has since denied her the right to citizenship, rendering her completely stateless.
It is under-recognised that by leaving Begum stateless, while she is classified as a possible threat to peace, we leave her in a position of extreme vulnerability and enable her to become even more dangerous— a belief echoed by the government terrorism laws reviewer, Jonathan Hall. If the British government is truly serious about putting a stop to terrorism, surely the most beneficial method to prevent Begum from presenting as a threat is to repatriate her and, if found guilty, prosecute her for crimes? By allowing Begum and others like her to remain stateless, not only does the government wash their hands of any and all responsibility, but they effectively cut these alleged terrorists loose, redirecting the risks they pose onto other countries.
The removal of Begum’s citizenship also leaves her in an incredibly vulnerable position— all human rights are linked to citizenship and so, without citizenship in any country, Begum is rendered without human rights. In being left in Syria, Begum could potentially fall back into the hands of ISIS, who could punish her for her desire to leave the terrorist organisation or re-instate her as a militant, capable of working for them.
The British government has painted a caricature of Begum that has allowed her to be villainized and scapegoated for a much wider, ongoing problem of human trafficking and grooming. Whilst human trafficking and grooming do not account for all of Begum’s actions— Begum has been accused of carrying a rifle as part of ISIS’ ‘morality police’, and attempting to recruit others to the organisation— we cannot discount her positionality as a minor who was ‘brainwashed’ by insidious and incredibly manipulative forces.
Fundamentally, through the case of Shamima Begum, we see a shifting of the blame from a Tory government unwilling to take responsibility for their own citizens. Hardly anyone remembers the case of ‘Jihadi Jack’ when the British government stripped British-Canadian citizen Jack Letts of his British citizenship for his reported involvement with ISIS. Letts travelled to Syria in September 2014, and was accused by journalist Richard Kerbaj of joining ISIS; Letts claimed that he believed in Sharia law but was simply in Syria to search for the truth and spread the religion of Allah. During a BBC interview with Letts in 2018, he said that ISIS encouraged him in an ‘indirect way’ to put on a suicide vest. In 2019 it was reported that the British government had revoked Letts’ British citizenship.
In response to the removal of Letts’ British citizenship, the Canadian government’s Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, described the move as an ‘off-load’ of British responsibilities. The case of Shamima Begum, while distinctly different to the case of Jack Letts, is similarly marked by the British government’s refusal to take responsibility for the crimes of their own citizens. Whether we want to admit it or not, Begum was born and raised in the UK and was a British citizen when she was groomed and trafficked to Syria. Notably, the UK stands alone in their controversial decision to not repatriate Begum— France, Spain, Canada, and Australia have all repatriated nationals from North-East Syria this year.
This case is not open and shut. The issues of providing Begum with adequate safety, in accordance with the Declaration of Human Rights (of which the UK is a signatory), as well as correctly punishing her for the crimes she has, or has allegedly, committed, are far from simplistic. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the British government has acted in a manner that conflicts the efforts of other nations and has rightfully garnered them criticism. Whether we want to admit it or not, the case of Shamima Begum is the British government’s cross to bear, and their treatment of her is indicative of a hateful rhetoric that does not account for her position as a minor. The UK’s response indicates policy failure that may have grave consequences for national and global security.
Ultimately, whatever your opinions of Shamima Begum herself and her actions, the logical decision for the British government is to repatriate her and reinstate her citizenship. In doing so, the government will be able to maintain control over how she is punished and protect both her and the British public from manipulative outside forces. As things currently stand, the treatment of Shamima Begum is indicative of a wider, more insidious rhetoric towards immigrants — need I mention Suella Braverman’s new ‘Stop the Boats Bill’? Whilst her actions are inherently reprehensible, the British government cannot go on abusing her human rights for the sake of shunting the blame.