Being a citizen of a country comes with rights, but also with responsibilities. Included amongst the latter is the fairly obvious obligation to not wage war against your country, and to not offer aid and succour to those who aspire to its destruction. This is what Shamima Begum sought to do.
As a 15 year old girl, she fled London, travelling to the would-be Caliphate, where she married and gave birth, all the while promoting the reprehensible ideology of Isis. As the Caliphate was mortared into dust, she was found in an emergency camp, destitute, struggling to care for her children (all of whom are now, tragically, dead), but still unwilling to denounce the ideology and terrorist organisation which had reduced her to such circumstances. Given her defiance, Sajid Javid, the then home secretary, stripped her of her British citizenship.
Depriving someone of their citizenship is not a decision lightly taken – or should not be. International law forbids countries from leaving people stateless, regardless of the gravity of their crime, with everyone required to have a country that they can, in principle, call theirs. The way in which Javid took Begum’s citizenship, however, did not have the hallmarks of a decision made after cool, reasoned discussion. Instead, it looked like a Trumpian fit of pique, a belligerent attempt to quickly win popular favour.
The defence offered up for its decision by our government was that Begum held Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents. She was not rendered stateless, but was free to return to her parents’ country of birth. This, it should be noted, is a country truly foreign to her. She has never lived in, or visited, Bangladesh, nor does she speak the language. Our home secretary, however, thought it lawful, and more importantly, politically expedient, to export her, as though she was simply a problem to be outsourced in the most precipitate way possible.
It was the automatic nature of Bangladeshi citizenship which meant this decision was legal, according to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), which upheld the Home Secretary’s decision in its judgment last Friday. After hearing evidence on the functioning of Bangladeshi law, SIAC decided that Begum held Bangladeshi citizenship, despite dispute between the expert witnesses as to whether the Bangladeshi judiciary was sufficiently independent to scrutinise any decision by the Bangladesh government denying her citizenship.
In SIAC’s view, it could not make a decision based on whether Begum would be de facto stateless – whether she was be stateless in practice – but only on whether she would be de jure stateless- stateless according to a pure interpretation of the law. The Commission concluded that even though it was almost inevitable that Bangladesh’s government would refuse her citizenship, it was irrelevant, as their legislation grants her ‘citizenship as of right…[it is] not in the gift of the government…’.
This appears to reduce a deeply important question of where an individual belongs – and what country has responsibility for them – to which country is quickest on the draw. Presumably if Bangladesh had any awareness of Begum’s existence before our government revealed her apparent Bangladeshi citizenship, they would also sought to have stripped her of it. Instead, Britain has simply dropped a still-devout extremist on Bangladesh’s doorstep, rung the doorbell, and pegged it down the street, yelling ‘no takes-backsies’.
Regardless of whether Begum has Bangladeshi citizenship, Britain should be taking responsibility for her. This is a girl who, at the age of 15, was groomed by charismatic extremists, converted from being a normal teenager from London’s East End – a ‘Bethnal Green girl’, as she put it to Anthony Lloyd, the Times journalist – to a radical Islamist who wished to bring about the downfall of Western civilisation. These extremists took advantage of her vulnerability then, and our government is taking advantage of her vulnerability now. Rather than simply casting her into the wilderness, we should be attempting to rehabilitate her, and if we cannot do that, keeping her and her apocalyptic philosophy confined.
Should we send her to Bangladesh, or leave her to wander the deserts of Arabia, we only increase the chances of further radicalisation. If Britain, with some of the most elite counter-terrorism operatives on the planet, could not stop her indoctrination and subsequent flight from the country, what hope does Bangladesh, a deeply impoverished country lacking any real expertise to deal with Islamic terror, have? To this end, they seem aware of their own limitations, with death by hanging her likely sentence. Doubtless some will crow at this, seeing it as the ultimate vindication of her choice to support the Islamic state, while our government will have effectively carted her to the scaffold.
Beyond this, for those who are born in Britain to foreign-born parents – potentially giving them a technical right to foreign citizenship – they now find their British citizenship much more precarious than they ever realised. Given that the home secretary has the right to deprive individuals of their citizenship for the ‘public good’, this gives enormously broad discretion to the government on who can be a British citizen. Judging from the use of this power, which rose from 14 cases in 2016 to 104 in 2017, the government has also realised the political expediency of such a power- not least the difficulty of challenging it through the courts.
Had Begum been a 15 year old groomed by paedophile gangs, or used as a drug mule, or forced into prostitution, the country would have been up in arms. But not at her, at those who had abused her, and at the state for failing her. Her situation is little different to these, yet she is reviled, because she had the misfortune to be beguiled by a group that is an anathema to us. Although this does not absolve her, it demeans us should we fail to consider her circumstances, as we would consider the circumstances of any accused of an offence. The decision by Javid was a cowardly one, and SIAC, in failing to consider the reality of her Bangladeshi ‘citizenship’, has condoned it. Shamima Begum is a British citizen, and should be made to face British justice. Not a show trial and a noose.