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Shamima Begum, statelessness and the Court of Appeal

On 16 July 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that Shamima Begum, the young woman who was deprived of her British citizenship after leaving the UK at 15 to join ISIS, should return to the UK to appeal her case.

This ruling comes after continual resistance by the Home Office, and a surge of public backlash. However, the Court argued that it is vital that Begum returns to the UK, in the interest of a fair trial.

Others, such as human rights group Liberty, have argued through effectively banishing Begum, who was born and raised in the UK, the government is “shirking” its responsibilities. Meanwhile, Amnesty International UK, has called the decision both “morally” and “legally” questionable.

British citizenship revoked

Shamima Begum was born in the UK to parents with Bangladeshi heritage. She was one of the three East London schoolgirls, who left the UK to join the Islamic State group (IS) and was 15-years-old at the time of her departure.

When Begum first left the UK, the Metropolitan Police informed the three girl’s families that if they returned to the UK, they would not be faced with criminal charges. Additionally, it apologised to their families for not intervening, despite its awareness of their increasing radicalisation.

Within ten days of arriving in Syria, Begum was married to radicalised, Dutch-born Yago Riedijk, who had arrived in Syria the year prior. He was 23-years-old at the time of their marriage. Together they had three children, all of whom have since died due to the extreme conditions under which they were living.

In February, it was announced that the former Home Secretary Sajid Javid, had made the decision to revoke Begum’s British citizenship. This decision was made under Section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981, which permits the stripping of citizenship status, if it is believed to be “conducive to the public good” and would not leave the individual stateless.

After Begum was informed of the Home Office’s decision, Daniel Furner, her lawyer, said they would be initiating an appeal “immediately” and stated that it was “a matter of exceptional urgency”.

The decision to revoke her citizenship was then challenged on three grounds, which her team argued made the decision unlawful:

  • She was left stateless
  • She was exposed to risk of death, or inhuman and degrading treatment
  • Barring her entry to the UK prevented her from effectively challenging the legal decision made

Later, a tribunal ruled that she had not been left stateless, due to Bangladeshi nationality law, permitting citizenship through descent. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) subsequently ruled that she should seek citizenship there. It was also ruled that the conditions within al-Roj camp in Syria did in fact breach her rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, as she is no longer a citizen of the UK, her human rights are not protected.

Commenting on the decision, Clare Collier, Liberty’s Advocacy Director, said: “Banishing people belongs in the dark ages, not 21st-century Britain”. Further to this, she argued that the decision was merely a way for the government to score “political points,” rather than out of concern for the safety of the British public.

Legally and morally questionable

Arguably, the most infamous case of citizenship deprivation, it is also one that has completely divided the nation. After Begum was found in 2019, Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, for example, was quoted as saying: “I’m not putting at risk British people’s lives to go looking for terrorists or former terrorists in a failed state”. And, this is the perspective held by many, one that condones the banishment of a British Citizen, who was only a child when she left the country. It is also perspective that fails to value the nuance and complexity of Begum’s situation.

While the Home Office argues that it has not left the 20-year-old stateless, this is completely contradicted when reviewing the statement made by Shahriar Alam, the State Minister of Foreign Affairs in Bangladesh. Issued to The Guardian, the statement outlined: “The government of Bangladesh is deeply concerned that [Begum] has been erroneously identified as a holder of dual citizenship. Bangladesh asserts that Ms Shamima Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen. She is a British citizen by birth and never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh … There is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh”.

Moreover, an expert representing Begum’s case at SIAC, argued that the politicised nature of the Supreme Court in Bangladesh, would likely lead to it ruling in favour of the government, “regardless of what the law is”.

As a result, the UK has effectively rendered Begum stateless. This contravenes Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”.

The decision to deprive Begum of her citizenship seems even more legally and morally questionable when considering that, historically, the deprivation power only applied to naturalised citizens.

On top of this, the decision, supposedly made in the name of “public good”, is an incredibly broad classification, and eliminates the possibility for rehabilitation. Both Begum, and her late husband, have also claimed that in the four years that they were together, she only ever acted as a housewife and: “Stayed at home [and] took care of [her] kids”. She also claimed that she never “did anything dangerous” or made propaganda, and did not encourage people to come to Syria, and that there is no evidence to claim the contrary.

Tasnime Akunjee, Begum’s family’s lawyer, has said that instead, the decision was a “politically-driven abuse of power” and fuelled by the Home Secretary’s “own personal political objective”.

Some, such as Nikita Malik, from the Henry Jackson Society, argue that Begum “chose to travel to Syria” and “join a terrorist organisation”. However, this does not take into consideration the grooming process that Begum experienced leading up to her departure from the UK, when she was still just a child. Begum herself even claims that she had been “brainwashed”.

Begum’s family’s lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, wrote a letter to the Home Secretary back in 2019, supporting her claim. In the letter he accused both the police and her local council of failing to protect her. Adding to this he stated that the government: “Neglected to consider the failings of the UK government, which led to Ms Begum becoming a child victim of trafficking”. And, of course as a result of being internationally trafficked, Begum then became the victim of child marriage too. A marriage which has left her the exiled and bereaved mother of three dead children, by the age of 20.

That being said, some have argued that Begum seems remorseless for her actions when seen in interviews over the last year. Anthony Loyd, a war reporter for The Times, interviewed Begum himself, and noted that after everything Begum had endured over the last five years, her attitude was to be expected.

Writing about this in an article for British GQ, he said: “Begum’s remarks were exactly what I would expect from a teen who had spent nearly three years living in the sealed echo chamber of the caliphate before turning 18. Overall, the young woman I met that day was a paradox”. He added: “The incomplete changeling: vulnerable, anxious and desperate to save her unborn baby, yet indoctrinated and apparently without regard for the lives of prisoners”.

Right to return to the UK

On 16 July 2020, the Court of Appeal ruled that the UK government had in fact acted unlawfully in stripping Begum of her British citizenship. Begum’s appeal was granted unanimously, which means that she must be readmitted to the UK, to give her the chance to effectively participate in her deprivation of citizenship appeal.

In the ruling, Lord Justice Flaux, alongside Lady Justice King and Lord Justice Singh, said: “Fairness and justice must, on the facts of this case, outweigh the national security concerns, so that the leave to enter appeals should be allowed”.

The court also stated that the Home Secretary’s: “Suggestion that Ms Begum’s appeal should be stayed indefinitely in circumstances where she is being detained by the SDF in the camp, does nothing to address the foreseeable risk if she is transferred to Iraq or Bangladesh, which is that in either of those countries she could be unlawfully killed or suffer mistreatment”.

Commenting on Thursday’s verdict, Daniel Furner, Begum’s solicitor, said: “Ms Begum has never had a fair opportunity to give her side of the story. She is not afraid of facing British justice, she welcomes it. But the stripping of her citizenship without a chance to clear her name is not justice, it is the opposite”.

A Home Office spokesperson, said: “This is a very disappointing decision by the Court. We will now apply for permission to appeal this [judgement], and to stay its effects pending any onward appeal.The Government’s top priority remains maintaining our national security and keeping the public safe”.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn

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