September 27 2023

Secretary of State “downplaying the significance of radicalisation” as Shamima Begum loses legal battle

Secretary of State “downplaying the significance of radicalisation” as Shamima Begum loses legal battle

Proof #4 cover: 'No Comment', Koestler Awards 2017

Shamima Begum, a British schoolgirl who left the UK to join the Islamic State (IS) when she was aged 15, has lost her appeal against the decision to strip her of her British citizenship.

In the judgment  published yesterday, Mr Justice Jay, on behalf of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), confirmed that the appeal has been fully dismissed. Despite the SIAC recognising the case as one of “great concern and difficulty”, the ruling means that Begum, now aged 23, remains stuck in a refugee camp in Northern Syria unable to return to the UK.

Begum left her home in East London with two schoolfriends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, to travel to Syria in 2015 after being groomed online to join IS. They flew from Gatwick airport to Turkey and later crossed the border into Syria; their parents were told they had gone out for the day.  Begum proceeded to marry a fighter within the group and later gave birth to three children, all of whom passed away. Ms Sultana was reportedly killed in a bombing raid in 2016, but the fate of Ms Abase is unknown. All UK consular services are suspended in Syria, making it difficult for the government to identify the whereabouts of British nationals in the camps.

Whilst the SIAC ruled that the decision to remove her British citizenship was lawful, they agreed there was “credible suspicion” that Begum was ‘recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purposes of sexual exploitation… to which, as a child, she could not give valid consent.’

In recognising the Home Office’s view that Begum voluntarily travelled to Syria in 2015, Mr Justice Jay observed that ‘reasonable people will profoundly disagree with the secretary of state…but that raises wider societal and political questions which it is not the role of this commission to address.’ However, he added that the idea that Begum could have “conceived and organised all of this herself is not plausible.” The judges were also concerned of the secretary of state’s “apparent downplaying of the significance of radicalisation and grooming” in Begum’s case. However, the judges stated that the possibility of trafficking, and whether it is a factor the secretary of state should have borne in mind in making the decision to remove Begum’s citizenship, was actually “not a mandatory relevant consideration.”

Whilst the SIAC do not have the power to rule that Begum can return to the UK, her case has highlighted the difference between Britain’s approach in repatriating refugees from Syrian camps compared with other countries. Just last month, Spain repatriated 2 women and 13 children from Syrian refugee camps, all of whom were Spanish citizens and families of IS fighters. Canada followed suit in repatriating 23 Canadian citizens from Syria, and America has permitted the return of all US citizens thus far.

Begum’s British citizenship was removed in 2019 by the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid. Javid relied upon the fact that Begum was of dual heritage, and he emphasised that he was acting in the interests of national security. The law Javid used can only be used if a person would not be rendered stateless as a result of having their citizenship revoked.

Javid’s decision came under widespread criticism, with much of the concern centring around the discriminatory nature and disproportionate use of the citizenship depravation law. The Institute of Race Relation’s (IRR) report says the implementation of these legal powers are almost exclusively targeted against Muslims and those of South Asian, Middle Eastern and African heritage.

The report adds that the legal distinction between British citizens with non-British heritage, compared to those with ‘full’ British heritage, causes a division which acts as a ‘constant reminder to minority ethnic citizens that they must watch their step’ whilst ‘reinforcing racist messages about racialised groups [being] unworthy of being British.’ There are an estimated 6 million British citizens of dual heritage whose passports are viewed as second-class and contingent because of this law, claims the IRR.

The Director of Amnesty International UK commented that ‘the Home Secretary shouldn’t be in the business of exiling British citizens…not least when we are talking about a person who was seriously exploited as a child.’

In response to the SIAC decision, Begum’s legal team confirmed they are exploring all avenues of challenge on an urgent basis.

A Home Office spokesperson welcomed the SIAC’s decision, stating: ‘The government’s priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK and we will robustly defend any decision made in doing so.’