As the territorial caliphate shrinks to one dusty and bombed out village in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, dozens of journalists from all over the world have been present to document the steady stream of muhajireen, or foreigners, who are now defecting or surrendering in droves. They travelled to Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014 when ISIS controlled significant land in both countries and installed its so-called caliphate, a place where Islamic Law – as they understood and interpreted it – was supposedly being practiced in its purest and fullest form.
As the YPG closes in on the last patch of ISIS territory, they have taken as prisoner almost 3,000 men, women, and children from over 40 countries. There immediately arose debate in the United States, Canada, and European countries about what to do with them. Some argued that we should just “leave them there to rot” because they “made their choice”, and it’s not up to western governments to bring them home and face the added security burden of monitoring individuals who have been in a perpetual warzone for over five years, being trained or taught to hate anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
This kind of thinking led to a dangerous move this week by the UK government: they revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum, one of the so-called Bethnal Green girls who, at the age of 15, travelled to Syria to join ISIS in 2015. Last week, journalist Anthony Lloyd found Begum in Al-Hawl camp in northeastern Syria. She recalled how she lost two children in Syria and that she was pregnant with her third. This baby was born in the camp soon after. Begum has given several interviews since – frustrating ones in which she engages in a series of whataboutisms when asked about the murder of journalists and civilians at the hands of ISIS.
But, however good it may make us feel to leave her “there to rot”, it is fundamentally a bad move with deep legal and ethical problems.
Under UK law, the Home Secretary is permitted to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals if it is “conducive to the public good.” There is no requirement that a citizen be found guilty of a terrorist offence; in fact, when introducing the legislation, the government argued that in some instances deprivation of citizenship is preferable to prosecution.
This appears to be the case here. Instead of taking responsibility for the actions of their citizen and prosecuting Begum and other members of ISIS for terrorist activity that they may have facilitated or perpetrated against the people of Syria, the UK government is washing their hands of the whole thing. And this isn’t the first time: the Home Secretary stripped 104 people of their citizenship in 2017 (the last year of reporting).
The only limit on this extreme use of executive power is that the government cannot revoke a person’s citizenship if it would render them stateless. However, in certain cases, the law allows the government to render naturalised citizens stateless if they have acted in a manner “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK.” But, since Begum was born in the UK, and does not consider herself a dual national, it is not clear how the government plans to make its case.
It appears that the government is preparing to argue that since her mother is from Bangladesh, a country that conveys citizenship by blood, Begum can apply to retain that state’s citizenship until she is 21. She, therefore, has the potential to not be rendered stateless.
Ironically, the UK government learned this lesson last November after an immigration judge found that the government’s attempts to revoke the citizenship of two British-Bangladeshi nationals was a violation of international law because the men were in their mid-thirties and had missed the window to apply to retain their citizenship.
However, it’s unknown if Bangladesh will recognise her citizenship and the privileges that go along with it, namely a passport and consular services. Only a month ago, the Australians tried to revoke the citizenship of well-known jihadist Neil Prakash, on the grounds that he also had rights in Fiji. The Fijian government responded that they did not have any record of his citizenship.
If Bangladesh fails to provide assistance to Begum, the UK move will effectively render her defacto stateless anyway. Certainly, at this point the Brits could claim that she is no longer their problem and have no control over what the Bangladeshi government decides to do.
Regardless of this particular British case, these kinds of policy choices by Western governments – and we are likely to see more countries try this – are cop-outs in which they are deciding to cut ties with citizens who grew up and were radicalised to violence within their borders, and then making them someone else’s problem.
Relatedly, moves such as this add a racist element to the citizenship process, as such a two-tier system would only affect second generation immigrants. White converts to Islam who joined ISIS, for instance, would get to keep their citizenship and be treated like any other criminal. Children of immigrants, even if they were born in the UK and have never visited their home countries, would be treated differently.
Such decisions by the UK government do nothing to prevent radicalisation or allow communities to feel like they have an equal claim to citizenship as anyone else. It is largely theatre and contributes little to actually making us safer.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo where he has been co-directing a study of Western foreign fighters for six years. He tweets at @AmarAmarasingam
Leah West is doctoral Candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, was formerly Counsel with the National Security Advisory and Litigation Group of the Department of Justice, and served for ten years in the Canadian Forces. She tweets at @leahwest_nsl