Shamima Begum Just Lost Another Appeal In Her UK Citizenship Battle. Why Does This Matter?

It was Begum's second appeal to return to the place of her birth.
British-born Shamima Begum from Bethnal Green in London, at Roj Camp
British-born Shamima Begum from Bethnal Green in London, at Roj Camp
Sam Tarling via Getty Images

This article was originally written in 2023. It was updated in March 2024.

Shamima Begum has just lost another legal appeal over the removal of her UK citizenship.

Begum was born in the UK, but her citizenship has been a source of controversy because of her links to the terrorist organisation, the so-called Islamic State (IS).

She has been trying to return to the country of her birth for some time, but the Home Office stripped her of her right to come back years ago.

Here’s what you need to know.

Who is Shamima Begum?

When she was 15, Begum left her home in London with two friends and travelled through Turkey to Syria to join IS.

While the Metropolitan Police began an international search to try to find the three teenagers, the teenager was being married off to a jihadist (that was just 10 days after she left the UK).

She was discovered by a journalist in 2019 in a displacement camp in Syria, nine months pregnant. Begum was hoping to raise this child in Britain.

But, when speaking to the media, she did not appear to express regret about joining the terrorist organisation, and seemed to defend some of IS’s most brutal acts such as the 2017 Manchester bombing.

She did ask for forgiveness from the UK and promised she still supported “some British values”.

The government then acted quickly to strip her UK citizenship.

Then home secretary Sajid Javid said he had to do so because she would be a threat to public safety if she returned to the UK.

Her newborn also died around a month after birth, meaning Begum had lost all three of her children since leaving the UK.

Since then, Begum has lived in a camp in northern Syria.

One of the friends she travelled with is still missing and the other is thought to have been killed by a Russian air strike.

What does removing British citizenship mean?

The secretary of state for the home department is entitled by the British Nationality Act of 1981 to withdraw someone’s citizenship if they behaved in a seriously prejudicial way or in conflict with the UK’s public interest.

That can refer to being involved in acts of terrorism, espionage, serious organised crime, war crimes or unacceptable behaviours.

Your right to live in the UK is affected if you lose citizenship.

Why was removing her citizenship so controversial?

It is unlawful under British law to make a citizen stateless – but the Home Office said that this did not apply to Begum because she had Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents.

The UK Supreme Court also decided not to let her back in the country.

Begum’s lawyers have repeatedly claimed this was all an attack on her family’s rights, while the saga also sparked a national conversation about how we respond to terrorism.

After all, Begum is only one of thousands currently held in Syrian detention camps and prisons since IS was officially defeated in 2019.

Begum has also said she would understand if she had to return to the UK and face the courts for being an IS member, but the government just does not want her back at all.

Begum just lost her appeal to return to the UK
Begum just lost her appeal to return to the UK
Sam Tarling via Getty Images

The ruling also means that anyone descended from migrants who lives in the UK now has a difficult relationship with their British identity, feeling that it could be removed.

The BBC has since shared a new podcast, I’m Not A Monster, around Begum, where she was able to describe how “relieved” she was to leave the UK all those years ago and that she never expected to return.

She added: “I’m just so much more than ISIS and I’m so much more than everything I’ve been through.”

Begum has since admitted knowingly joining a proscribed organisation, saying she was “ashamed” and regretted it.

There has also been speculation over whether a people trafficker helped to smuggle her and her friends into Syria, after a book called The Secret History of the Five Eyes by Richard Kerbaj was published in 2022.

Tasnime Akunjee, the Begum family’s lawyer, said one of the main “arguments” for reinstating Begum’s citizenship was that Javid did not think of her as a victim of trafficking.

He added: “The UK has international obligations as to how we view a trafficked person and what culpability we prescribe to them for their actions.”

What was the court decision in 2023?

Begum submitted her appeal against the Home Office’s decision at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.

This is a specialist tribunal which hears challenges to decisions to remove someone’s British citizenship on national security grounds.

Her barristers Samantha Knights KC and Dan Squires KC said she had been “recruited, transported, transferred, harboured and received in Syria for the purposes of ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘marriage’ to an adult male.”

They said the Home Office had unlawfully failed to think that she had travelled to Syria as a “victim of child trafficking” when she was just 15.

But, after a five-day hearing in November 2022, the tribunal dismissed her challenges.

The government’s Sir James Eadie KC said the security services “continue to assess that Ms Begum poses a risk to national security” even if she was “manipulated”.

The home office’s barrister said that Begum’s age was considered, as was the likelihood that she was radicalised online, along with how she travelled to Syria, and what she did in the country. It still stood by its decision to remove her citizenship.

The judgement said: “In all the circumstances, and having considered and analysed the voluminous material that has been placed before it in the context of all nine groups of appeal, [the tribunal] has been unable to conclude that the secretary of state erred in any material respect.”

According to the journalist behind I’m Not A Monster, Joshua Baker, Begum’s legal team is not ready to give up just yet. Reports at the time suggested they were looking to appeal this decision, too.

What happened to the 2024 appeal?

Begum lost this Court of Appeal decision, too, after the three appeal judges made a unanimous decision to dismiss all of her arguments. Now 24, she has to stay in Syria.

She tried to to challenge this decision by escalating it to the Supreme Court – but, in March, the Court of Appeal refused to pass the case on.

She could now ask the Supreme Court directly to have permission to have her case heard.

Her solicitor Daniel Furner said her team was “not going to stop fighting until she does get justice and until she is safely back home.”

Another member of her legal team Gareth Peirce said the UK had a moral duty to take Begum back because other nations had done so.

However, the unanimous decision from the Court of Appeal might hinder her chances at the Supreme Court.

Lady Chief Justice Baroness Carr, head of the Supreme Court, said: “It could be argued the decision in Ms Begum’s case was harsh. It could also be argued that Ms Begum is the author of her own misfortune.

“But it is not for this court to agree or disagree with either point of view.

“Our only task is to assess whether the deprivation decision was unlawful. We have concluded it was not, and the appeal is dismissed.”

The Court of Appeal’s move is a win for the government.

The Home Office said it was “pleased” and that “priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK”.


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