On Thursday, the Court of Appeal ruled that Shamima Begum will be allowed to return home to the UK to appeal the removal of her British citizenship. Within minutes, “She is British” was trending on Twitter, with a mix of tweets expressing vindication and horror proliferating.
But this shouldn’t be a controversial decision. Begum should never have been stripped of her citizenship in the first place.
In 2015, aged just 15, Begum was one of the three Bethnal Green schoolgirls who travelled to Syria to join IS, and was discovered in a Syrian refugee camp in February 2019.
Shortly after, then-home secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of her British citizenship, provoking controversy and split opinion. Some advocated Begum should have her citizenship removed immediately, forfeiting it the minute she decided to join IS. After all, Begum had defended indefensible terror acts such as the Manchester bombings, had said she was unfazed at seeing a head in a bin, and “didn’t regret” joining IS. If she was looking for British sympathy, she understandably wasn’t garnering it.
Begum was born and brought up in Britain, she wasn’t a dual national. If she was made stateless, what would happen to her?
Others, however, questioned whether she should be treated as a victim of child internet grooming who was brainwashed. More importantly, they questioned the legality of the ruling: Begum was born and brought up in Britain, and she didn’t hold another nationality. If she was made stateless, what would happen to her?
Many argued the government’s move was racist – that if Begum was white, this wouldn’t have happened and society would have seen her as a victim. Some point to Jack Letts (more commonly known as “Jihadi Jack”) who was also stripped of his British citizenship shortly after Begum.
But there’s a crucial difference here: Letts was a dual citizen – he is half Canadian – and so was never left stateless.
Legally, a person can only be made stateless if they are able to become a citizen of another country. But Begum, unlike Letts, could not. Her likely alternative could plausibly be death: as her barrister Tom Hickman QC told the Court of Appeal, she would likely face “extra-judicial killing at the hands of the police” or else “a wholly unfair and predetermined ‘trial’ and an immediate sentence of death”.
Bangladesh, where Begum’s mother was born, repeatedly affirmed there was “no question” she would not be allowed into the country, and expressed concern that she had been “erroneously identified” as a Bangladeshi national. Yet in February, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission still decreed the decision to remove her citizenship was lawful due to her Bangladeshi descent.
She has lost three children at the age of 20. Whatever you think of her, that in itself is a trauma to not be wished upon anyone.
In Thursday’s ruling, Lord Justice Flaux said, with due respect to the prior ruling, it is “unthinkable that, having concluded that Ms Begum could not take any meaningful part in her appeal so that it could not be fair and effective, she should have to continue with her appeal nonetheless,” adding: “It is difficult to conceive of any case where a court or tribunal has said we cannot hold a fair trial, but we are going to go on anyway.”
In the intermittent five years, Begum has not had a fun life. In the last year alone, Begum gave birth to a son who died of pneumonia shortly after. She has lost three children at the age of 20. Whatever you think of her, that in itself is a trauma to not be wished upon anyone.
Stripping her of citizenship doesn’t make the UK any safer – it is merely a jingoistic act which stokes racial tensions. It is not even proven to reduce terrorism in the UK, rather foster the dangerous delusion that terrorism is only a foreign problem. Even an official government commissioned report found removing people’s citizenship is an “ineffective and counter-productive weapon against terrorism.”
Begum is not asking for the laws to be bent, or for her crimes to be repented. Far from it. She now admits what she has done is wrong, and there is no danger of her being released and absolved or even released. But she is a British citizen who deserves sentencing in Britain. To ascribe her Bangladeshi citizenship on the basis of her mother’s ancestry is nonsensical and sets a dangerous precedent for second generation immigrants: it tells them you aren’t really British unless you’re white.
Thankfully, the court of public opinion is not the ultimate arbiter. The Court of Appeal rightly ruled that “the only way in which she can have a fair and effective appeal is to be permitted to come into the United Kingdom to pursue her appeal”.
Shamima Begum welcomes a fair trial. And so should we.
Maighna Nanu is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @maighna_n