This week, the papers have been flooded with commentary on the case of Shamima Begum. In 2015, as a 15-year-old, she travelled to Islamic State-held territory in Syria, along with two other girls from the same Bethnal Green school. Now she wishes to return to the UK with her surviving child.
Many have been struck – in response to the Home Secretary’s decision to strip Shamima of her citizenship – to discover the state of citizenship law in the UK. Powers to take away a person’s citizenship have been on the statute books for decades, but were essentially unused until the advent of the so-called War on Terror. Incremental changes to the law made by New Labour and the coalition government have made it a much easier course of action for the Home Secretary to take, and as data obtained by the Free Movement blog shows, revocations of citizenship have skyrocketed in comparison with recent years. From 2011 to 2016, no fewer than 30 people per year were stripped of their citizenship. In 2017, that number was over 100.
It is not clear that Sajid Javid has acted lawfully in this case, and that in itself is a serious problem: it’s a breach of international human rights law to make someone stateless. It’s a reactionary and premature decision that appears to have been a classic case of posturing to the public gallery. However, following a more cynical interpretation, this of course sets him up for an arduous battle through the courts, in which he can cast himself as protector of the British public and vilify any lawyer who stands in his way. In the meantime, the future of a newborn baby and his mother will hang in the balance, and principles that protect us all from government excesses, like due process and the rule of law, risk being further dragged through the mud and eroded.
Even if stripping Shamima of her citizenship turns out to be lawful, that doesn’t make it right. The government has a whole host of options available to it in scenarios like this, and taking away a person's citizenship is the most draconian among them. Its own counter-terror strategy, published in 2018, sets out that "individuals who have travelled to the conflict zone must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences". As many have pointed out, page 50 includes a case study illustrating what actions the government might take in dealing with a young British mother attempting to return from ISIS territory. It contemplates managed return, criminal investigation and safeguarding action for the hypothetical woman’s child – not permanent exile.
What this case reveals, much in the way that the Windrush scandal did, is the tendency of the British state to turn citizens – and specifically black and minority ethnic citizens – into immigrants. Many people in the UK hold dual citizenship because their parents were or are citizens of the UK’s former colonies in the global south. So the capacity of the state to strip people of their citizenship is by its very nature racialised. If Shamima was a young woman whose lineage stretched back generations in the British metropole alone, banishment wouldn’t even be on the table, and she would have to be managed like the hundreds of people who have returned to Britain from ISIS territory in recent years.
But as the discriminatory underbelly of our citizenship laws is brought to light, driving people to affirm Shamima's Britishness – and that of all children of immigrants born here – it’s vital that we don’t normalise the idea that it is only her Britishness that entitles her to due process. Executive, extra-judicial responses to allegations of serious crime shouldn’t be tolerated for anyone, whatever their nationality. We know what ultimately happens when governments tell us they have to make exceptions in the name of fighting terrorism: complicity in torture, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, summary executions and indefinite states of emergency.
On a more prosaic level, it’s difficult to fathom how anyone is made safer by exiling Shamima, rather than questioning, investigating and, if necessary, prosecuting her. And crucially, this course of action does nothing to help the government understand how we got to this point.
Whenever concerns are raised that Prevent is actually facilitating surveillance of Muslim and minority ethnic communities by public services that are supposed to support them, or threatening freedom of religion and speech, the response is essentially: "Your claims are unfounded; Prevent is all about safeguarding." Indeed, only weeks ago the Home Secretary made the incendiary claim that all critics of Prevent "side with extremists". But the question remains: how is it that 15-year-old Shamima Begum was able to travel to Syria without effective action being taken to safeguard her from the harm she faced in doing so? We simply don’t know what activity she may have been involved in while in Syria, and she may also have been groomed and effectively trafficked prior to arriving there. But banishing her makes all of these questions impossible to explore, and indeed actively stops us trying to respond better to similar cases in the future.
What Sajid Javid has to get to grips with is that this is the only course of action – along with staunch defence of principles like due process and fundamental rights – that will ultimately protect us all in the long run.
Gracie Bradley Policy and Campaigns Officer for Liberty.