Access Denied: Shamima Begum loses legal battle to return to the UK following Supreme Court ruling

March 16, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

The Supreme Court has overturned the 2020 Court of Appeal decision which would have permitted Shamima Begum (who, at age 15, left the UK to join so-called ISIS) to return to the UK from the Syrian refugee camp where she currently resides. 

What does this mean?

The Home Office had appealed the Court of Appeal’s previous decision on the basis that Begum’s return presents a “national security threat”. In addition, the Supreme Court ruling dismissed Begum’s cross-appeal relating to the way in which the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (a court set up to deal with appeals from those who have been deported by the Home Secretary) decided to deprive Begum of her British citizenship. 

Stating that the right to a fair hearing did “not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”, Lord Reed concluded that the appeal should be paused until Begum is able to “play an effective part in [her case] without the safety of the public being compromised”, recognising that “it is not known how long it may be before that is possible”. Indeed, the camp Begum is in will not let any lawyers enter.

Begum left the UK as a 15-year-old schoolgirl to travel to Syria to join so-called ISIS. Begum was found heavily pregnant in early 2019 in a Syrian refugee camp after having lived for over three years under ISIS rule.

What's the big picture effect?

The outcome of this Supreme Court decision came as a shock to many.

Conservative Home Secretary Priti Patel considers the judgment a win, claiming the Court “reaffirmed the Home Secretary’s authority to make vital national security decisions”. 

However, criticism has come from a variety of angles and centres around the alleged disregard for justice and the rule of law notwithstanding Begum’s conduct. Human rights organisations, including Liberty and Reprieve, state that the government’s approach represents a “cynical distraction from a failed counter-terror strategy and another example of this government’s disregard for access to justice and the rule of law” and that preventing Begum’s return amounts to the UK avoiding responsibility. The hypocrisy of the government’s approach has also been highlighted, with these groups pointing out that several hundred other individuals have been able to return from Syria to the UK. 

This points to a broader pattern flagged by a UN special rapporteur who stated that there has been an “uptick in nationality stripping” by states which do not want to accept individuals who have had so-called ISIS involvement. Indeed, the UK’s approach falls into stark contrast with that of the US, which lets in nationals who have joined ISIS.

The case surrounding Shamima Begum draws further questions about the nature of citizenship in relation to morality, politics and racism. Under the 1981 British Nationality Act, citizenship can be stripped from an individual if the home secretary believes it to be “conducive to public good” – a political decision with no judicial oversight. However, citizenship can only be revoked from someone with dual nationality because an individual cannot be left stateless. Begum is a British citizen, born and raised in London, however, Sajid Javid (the then home secretary) reasoned that because Begum’s parents come from Bangladesh, Bangladesh should accept Begum instead, despite Begum never having visited the country. The question is therefore raised about a system of two-tier citizenship, whereby those British citizens whose parents were born in the UK and do not have dual nationality have unconditional citizenship, whereas those whose parents were born outside of the UK instead have conditional citizenship. 

Further to this are the issues surrounding Begum’s online grooming and the potential that Begum was a victim of terrorism-linked sex trafficking.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court judgment raises many more questions than it answers. It remains unclear the extent to which the British government is willing to go (or not to go as the case may be) to serve justice and uphold the rule of law.

Report written by Edie Essex Barrett

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