Shamima Begum (born 1999) is a British woman who left the UK, aged 15, to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria. Her intention to return to the UK in 2019 resulted in a public debate about the handling of returning jihadists. In February 2019, the British government issued an order revoking her British citizenship. The British government has since clarified that she will never be allowed to return.
This has not deterred her from fighting for what she considers to be her right to return to her country of birth. Under British law, she is not automatically entitled to her citizenship. Section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981 states that the Home Secretary can issue an order to deprive a person of their British citizenship if he or she is satisfied that:
- it would be conducive to the public good to deprive the person of their British citizenship status and to do so would not render them stateless; or
- the person obtained their citizenship status through naturalisation, and it would be conducive to the public good to deprive them of their status because they have engaged in conduct “seriously prejudicial” to the UK’s vital interests, and the Home Secretary has reasonable grounds to believe that they could acquire another nationality; or
- the person acquired their citizenship status through naturalisation or registration, and it was obtained by means of fraud, false representation, or concealment of any material fact.
The key phrase here is ‘conducive to the public good’, which means that ‘seriously prejudicial’ conduct such as involvement in terrorism (as is the case with Shamima Begum), serious organized crime, espionage, or war crimes. It is also important to understand that the Home Secretary has the power to use the Royal Prerogative to issue, withdraw or refuse a British passport.
Her personal journey
Shamima was born in England to parents of Bangladeshi heritage and was raised in Bethnal Green in London. She left the UK for Syria (via Turkey) in February 2015 with two school friends called Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana – all three traveled specifically to join the jihad in Syria. Shamima married ten days after arriving in Syria – her new husband was a Dutch Islamic convert who had been in Syria since 2014. She then had three children, with the two eldest dying and the third being born in a refugee camp in February 2019.
In her own words
In a very widely reported BBC News interview from inside the refugee camp that she lives in, Shamima Begum is recorded, unprompted, saying that initially she found life amongst the terrorists to be, “Like how they showed it in the (propaganda) videos, like., ‘come, make a family together’.”
She then went on to explain how, “Things got harder, you know. When we lost Raqqa, we had to keep moving and moving. The situation got difficult.” She explained how this made her have second thoughts and that after the death of her son she “realised” that she had to escape. In the video, she also answered questions about having witnessed beheadings. Her response: “Yeah, I knew about those things and I was ok with it. Because you know, I started becoming religious just before I left. From what I heard, Islamically, that is all allowed, so I was ok with it.” She also commented that she deserves “sympathy” from Britons after giving birth in a Syria refugee camp – even though she has no regrets about joining ISIS.
Opinion is of course split on what many might consider being a matter of international law, statehood, and human rights. The former leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, sympathised with her situation, describing the decision to remove her citizenship as a, “Very extreme manoeuvre.” Sophia Akram from The Independent believes that she should return: “Bringing them (ISIS wives) back to Britain to be held accountable for their crimes would have demonstrated the country’s respect for human rights and the rule of law.” Many other newspapers – the majority in the UK, take a very different view. Many ordinary people take a different view.
Shamima’s court case, upon her return, is likely to focus on proving that the UK is breaking international laws by making her stateless. The following are the four most likely grounds:
- The UK law in this instance may be unlawfully arbitrary and/or discriminatory
- It is arguable that UK law is contravening the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness 1961
- The UK may be violating its customary international legal obligation to readmit nationals
- UK practice may breach its conventional ‘extradite or prosecute’ obligations
To read more about the arguments against the government’s decision to withdraw citizenship, this open-access white paper is very useful.
Shamima Begum is undoubtedly a test case with very serious implications. If the British government is unable to succeed in depriving Mrs. Begum of her passport, the stage will be set for many more women – and men – to return home after having supported ISIS or having fought British forces on foreign soil. Depending upon ones perspective, a victory for Begum could also be an enormous victory for human rights against the overweening state.
The stakes could not be higher.