Shamima Begum and the question of citizenship

Shamima Begum – the “jihadi bride” who left the UK to join ISIS – is back in the news. The UK had determined that she had fled to join a foreign state and thus was had given up any claim to be a British citizen. However, the High Court have ruled that she may return to the UK to appeal the revocation of her citizenship by the Home Office.

It should be noted, at this point, that nobody has ruled that the British government have illegally revoked her citizenship. The High Court have merely granted her the right to appeal that decision. They have not (yet) ruled that the British government have acted illegally. That is the very question that is to be addressed.

I entirely understand the views of those who believe the British government were right to act in this way. It is very difficult to have any great sympathy with someone who has actively sided with those who have openly declared themselves to be your enemies. And there is no denying the terrible things that she has done. The atrocities in which she took part don’t seem to be under any great discussion; they seem to be a fairly well established fact. So, as unsympathetic characters go, you don’t get much less sympathetic than Shamima Begum. But it is precisely in these extreme cases that we discover just how credible our claim to support universal human rights really is. They are the cases upon which we can rest our confidence that our rights will be upheld. I know this is an unpopular position, but I can’t see a credible case for the UK denying Begum her citizenship.

Now, I should stress exactly what this does not mean. I do not think it means denying Begum has committed the crimes that she has and holding her to account for them. Nor do I think it should mean – and this will be just as unpopular with those who hold the opposing view – that the British government should do anything to aid her trip back to the UK. If she managed to get to Syria and announce her affiliation to ISIS so let her make her own way back to the UK should she decide that her actually citizenship of a properly recognised country is, in fact, preferable to playing soldiers with a pretend country. I don’t think the British government should expend any energy trying to repatriate her nor spend any money seeking to bring her back. She got herself to where she is so let her find her own way out of it.

But none of that means that the UK should revoke her citizenship. She is a British citizen and that means we have certain responsibilities for her. Of course, plenty of British citizens get themselves imprisoned abroad, so even that doesn’t necessarily mean that she should be repatriated. But if another country does not want to take responsibility for her – and it would appear that Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who run the camp she is currently in do not want to and do not feel they have the wherewithal to manage all those they have captured – it surely falls to the country to which these fighters belong to deal with them appropriately.

The British government initially argued that they could strip Begum of her citizenship because (they believed) she had the right to take up citizenship in Bangladesh due to her parents’ nationality. However, the Bangladeshi government have made it abundantly clear that they would not receive her because she has no Bangladeshi passport. In fact, she has never so much as set foot in the country. It remains illegal, under international law, to render a person stateless if there is no country in which they could take up residency.

The reality here, however, is that the British government simply do not want to take responsibility for her. And whilst I can entirely understand why, that carries with it another implicit decision: that we are happy for somebody else to have to take responsibility for her. But when she isn’t a citizen of any other country, and even the one she claimed allegiance to is neither a real country nor in existence in any sense, whom else should take responsibility for her? At the moment, we seem happy to allow that the Kurdish Syrians to do so, but if we don’t reckon her to be our citizen, how much less can she be said to be theirs?

Let’s just put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine the child of British ex-pats living in Spain went to Syria and found themselves in the same boat. What if the Spanish government insisted that, having gone to Syria, that person is no longer a Spanish citizen and their passport could be revoked on the ground that their parents are British citizens so they could take up residence in the UK despite their having no British passport and speaking only Spanish. Can you imagine our government signing that off? If you can’t, what ground have we got for assuming that anybody else’s government should sign that off for us? It is a matter of international duty to take responsibility for our own citizens, no matter how terribly they may have acted.

But the real reason this matters is because how we answer it determines how our government might be permitted to act in all sorts of other circumstances. Though this case may seem an extreme example, at heart, there is a person recognised as a British citizen who – despite what they have done and any personal proclamations they have made – has been stripped of their only citizenship. The sole ground for having done so appears to be that Shamima Begum has acted in ways the government (albeit rightly, in this case) deem to be abhorrent. The question for the rest of us then, should we find ourselves to have done what the government deem to be abhorrent (whether we consider them right to do so or not), is what ground would we have for retaining our citizenship under those circumstances?

There is an altogether different discussion to be had as to what should happen to Shamima Begum. There is yet another to be had in respect to how she should make her way to the UK. But to strip people of their citizenship is not only a troubling dereliction of duty on the part of the government, it is a worrying precedent for the rest of us. If we want to be confident in our own citizenship, Shamima Begum ought to retain hers regardless of what we think of her.