Shamima Begum: Stuck Stateless

What’s going on here?

Shamima Begum (dubbed the “ISIS bride”) had her British citizenship removed following public outcry that she intended to return to the UK after joining Islamic State in Syria (ISIS). 

What does this mean?

Begum left the UK with two friends in 2015 (at the age of 15) to join ISIS. In interviews from her refugee camp in Syria, Begum claimed that she did not regret her decision to join ISIS. During these interviews, she stated that she was pregnant and expressed her desire to return to the UK to raise her child (who has since passed away). This resulted in an outcry by the British public that Begum must not be allowed to return to the UK.

UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced in February that Begum had been stripped of her British citizenship.

What’s the big picture effect?

The legal issues in this story surround the revocation of someone’s citizenship status.

Under the British Nationality Act 1981, the government can deprive even British-born citizens of nationality where it is deemed “conducive to the public good”, but only if they have citizenship of another state. Making someone “stateless” is against international and UK law. The government had alleged that Begum is able to claim Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents, but the Government of Bangladesh have stated that she does not hold Bangladeshi citizenship and will not be allowed to enter the country. The revocation of her British citizenship has therefore left Begum presumed stateless, and arguably violates international law.

Javid’s decision (which some are calling “trial by media”) sets a dangerous precedent. Without citizenship, modern life becomes highly challenging, particularly as Begum has now been left in Syria. However, Begum is not alone. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are an estimated 12 million stateless people worldwide.

The decision has also been criticised as inconsistent. Begum has insisted that her role was as a housewife and mother, and there is no evidence of her committing crimes sufficient to see her prosecuted. Meanwhile, Jack Letts (aka “Jihadi Jack”) has not had his British citizenship revoked, along with many others actually convicted of terrorism offences. One possible reason behind the decision is that if Begum were to return to the UK, she may not face prosecution, and thus would be released as a potentially dangerous person.

Revoking someone’s citizenship is a simpler and more efficient solution than embarking on a long, drawn out investigation to establish criminality through court proceedings. But, can the process leading to Javid’s decision be considered an administrative breach? Shouldn’t this sort of decision be made by the UK courts? The knee-jerk decision to strip Begum of her citizenship seems to have lacked consideration for the precedent being set, conveniently removing the problem rather than confronting it.

The decision is set to be challenged by Begum as we move forward in this interaction between sentiment and law.

Report written by Elizabeth C.

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