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Described as a “foot soldier” for ISIS by some and a survivor of grooming and child trafficking by others, Shamima Begum is an individual at the centre of controversy. Back in February 2019, then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid made the decision to remove her citizenship, under the British Nationality Act 1981, on national security grounds, claiming she was a threat to the country.
Begum’s legal team appealed against the decision, and so ensued a legal battle, leading to the judgement made by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) last week. Mr Justice Jay, on behalf of Siac, declared that the decision of the previous Home Secretary should be upheld, rendering Begum stateless and unable to return to the UK as a citizen.
This decision is one that has been met with much debate, and many argue that the revocation of her Begum has broader implications.
The Shamima Begum case came back into the spotlight following a Times journalist finding her nine months pregnant in a refugee camp in al-Roj in February 2019. She told the journalist that she sought to return to the UK; it was then that the Home Secretary took action. However, on Wednesday, 23rd February, on behalf of the Siac panel, Mr Justice Jay ruled that although there was “credible suspicion” that Begum “was recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purpose of sexual exploitation”, it was “insufficient” for the commission to render the 2019 decision of Javid unlawful. The panel rejected all nine grounds of her appeal.
While it was agreed that the motive of bringing her to Syria was indeed sexual exploitation “for which, as a child, she could not give valid consent,” he wrote: “It is for the secretary of state to decide what is in the public interest, and how much weight to give to certain factors, subject always to this commission intervening on ordinary administrative law principles. This secretary of state, speaking through Sir James [Eadie KC], maintains that national security is a weighty factor and that it would take a very strong countervailing case to outweigh it.”
Further to this, he outlined that reasonable people will “profoundly disagree” with the decision made by Javid, but that it raises wider societal and political questions “which it is not the role of this commission to address.”
Mr Justice Jay was indeed right when he said that people would “profoundly disagree,” with many human rights organisations highlighting their disappointment at the decision. Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director, for example, said: “The Home Secretary shouldn’t be in the business of exiling British citizens by stripping them of their citizenship.” Valdez-Symonds said that the “power to banish a citizen” shouldn’t exist in the modern world, and highlighted that this is especially true considering that the woman involved in the case was “exploited as a child.”
“ISIS have been responsible for appalling crimes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, but that doesn’t change that Shamima Begum is British and was groomed and trafficked to Syria,” he said. Adding: “Along with thousands of others, including large numbers of women and children, this young British woman is now trapped in a dangerous refugee camp in a war-torn country and left largely at the mercy of gangs and armed groups.
Law firm Birnberg Peirce said in a statement: “The commission’s hands, it considers, are tied by the alteration by the supreme court of its role – it is no longer allowed to come to its own decisions on the merits of a case as a whole. On the key issues, it must defer to the secretary of state. Once that is accepted, it is hard to see what part an appeal against this draconian decision can play.”
The UK rendered Begum stateless, as despite claims that she is a Bangladeshi citizen, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen, and further that she had never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh or visited the country. At the time of the UK Government’s decision, the Bangladeshi government expressed it was “deeply concerned” that she had been “erroneously identified” as a Bangladeshi citizen. Moreover, it is likely that Begum would face the death penalty for involvement in terrorism if she entered the country.
The UK is ranked second globally regarding nationality deprivation, and as highlighted by human rights charity, Reprieve, the only G20 country that strips citizenship ‘in bulk,’ while also one the last of the Western allies unwilling to repatriate nationals from Syria. Further, Devyani Prabhat, a professor at the University of Bristol Law School, says most UK “allies” do not have such broad deprivation of citizenship powers as the UK. Likewise, Human Rights Watch has called the Begum decision and other citizen deprivation rulings “a dark stain on the United Kingdom,” and called for the government to repatriate all British nationals from Syrian detention camps.
The decision to permanently exile Begum, and others like her, is the stuff of bygone eras; moreover, citing national security as a reason for deprivation, is not only a broad classification but is also flawed. For instance, experts have argued that declaring Begum and others like her stateless, could indeed create more of a national security threat; by abandoning her to countries, her terrorist affiliation could evolve. Speaking about this, Richard Barrett and Paul Jordan, at the European Institute of Peace, said that refusing to repatriate people in camps in Syria “is likely to be significantly more dangerous” than returning them to the UK, repatriating them, trying them in court, and rehabilitating them, before finally, reintegration. Similarly, Jonathan Hall KC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has raised questions over the “unintended consequences,” of the policy of deprivation, and said the UK has a “suite of civil powers,” available to prosecute Begum in the UK.
While Shamima Begum stirs up intense feelings on either side of the debate, it is important to note that this issue, as highlighted by Justice Jay himself, is not black and white. Further to the complicated nature and nuance of the situation, this ruling has implications that extend much further than Begum herself. Many have argued that the decision to strip Begum of her citizenship, essentially creates a racist, two-tiered citizenship, downgrading citizenship for both naturalised citizens and the children of immigrants.
Rulings such as this, which undermine the legitimacy and validity of the citizenship of naturalised citizens, immigrants and the children of immigrants, are only likely to fuel the anti-immigrant sentiment polluting the country right now. Already, the harmful rhetoric about asylum seekers espoused by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, has culminated in extremist attacks and violent protests in Liverpool and elsewhere.
Further to this, commentators argue that the decision by Siac, essentially issues in a new era of deference, where the court fails to properly address the alleged breaches of Begum’s core human rights, the wider international human rights laws, and the implications of the ruling. It is a disturbing time when such decisions are left entirely to the discretion of politicians. Gareth Pierce and Daniel Furner, of Birnberg Pierce Solicitors have also outlined that the ruling outcome also means there is now “no protection for a British child trafficked out of the UK if the Home Secretary invokes national security.”
Shamima Begum now joins the hundreds of other individuals whose citizenship has been removed. Between January and September 2022, research shows that there were 354 other legal challenges against the government’s citizenship deprivation orders, the highest on record. Further, only 75 people were successful in overturning the decision on their citizenship.
Begum’s lawyers reportedly have ten days to decide whether or not to appeal against the Siac decision to the court of appeal. Her legal team have vowed to keep fighting.
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