Shamima Begum: What does her case say about Britain today?

Iona Holmes shares her opinion of the Shamima Begum case. 

Little can be said about Shamima Begum that hasn’t already been said before. The 19-year-old ISIS bride, who joined Islamic state at only 15, divided opinion when Sajid Javid revoked her British citizenship after she sought to return from Syria. He justified the move on the grounds that she had the possibility of acquiring Bangladeshi citizenship. However, 12 hours later, Bangladesh stated that she had no place in their country and within two weeks, her third child died in a refugee camp.

Whatever your thoughts on this situation, it is clear that her case was mishandled at the cost of a baby’s life. But now that the media storm has calmed, it is worth reflecting on what her treatment really says about Britain.

In revoking Begum’s citizenship, the government removed any responsibility they had towards her as a British citizen. In effect, Javid’s actions amount to banishment – an archaic method of punishment which is more of a symbolic gesture than an effective solution. Instead of allowing her to return with her son and face the consequences of her actions through the justice system, the government simply dusted their hands of her.

This kind of action, which the UK is increasingly exercising, also places an unjust burden on other states who are the recipients of those rejected by Britain. This is not behaviour that would be expected from a ‘progressive democratic nation’ and sends a concerning message to the international community about Britain’s attitude towards responsibility for our citizens.

Javid’s decision becomes even more problematic when you consider the motives for driving it. It is a prime example of ‘trial by the press’ – Begum hit the headlines when she travelled to join ISIS aged 15, and once again when she asked to return. In a spate of depressing irony, the same papers propagating the ‘go back to where you come from’ rhetoric, are now up in arms about a British citizen trying to return home. The media have used her as a pawn to fuel their racialized narrative around terrorism, which in turn has pressured the Home Secretary to ‘take a stand’ and prevent Begum’s return.

The government has since accepted that 400 individuals who actively fought for ISIS have been allowed back into the UK and, although we do not know the specifics of Begum’s activities in Syria, she claims that her role in the organisation was limited to that of a housewife. Therefore, the press seemingly replaced due process for Begum, since other citizens who did not generate a media frenzy were able to return, despite the fact they committed more serious crimes.

It is also worth noting that Javid’s handling of this case contradicts his original intentions as Home Secretary. When he was appointed to the role, he stated that he wanted to create an immigration system which was fair, and treated people with respect and dignity. This decision exemplifies the exact opposite of these values, particularly when you consider the differential treatment Begum was afforded in comparison to the 400 returnees. Javid was willing to abandon his principles to appease the media, and potentially to make him appear as a ‘strong’ candidate in the event of a Conservative leadership contest.

shamima begum

I accept that many people believe that the UK is entitled to remove any responsibility they have for Begum because her decision to join ISIS went against the fundamental values of British society. However, leaving her stateless is contrary to a long-standing principle of international law; statelessness deprives a person of the ‘right to have rights’, as Hannah Arendt once put it. This is only made more problematic when we consider that she was a child who was manipulated and brainwashed by an extremist group and has undergone extreme trauma as a result, something which Britain failed to protect her from.  

Javid will argue that making her stateless was not his intention and that he acted within the realms of legality because he believed that she held  Bangladeshi citizenship. But the fact of the matter is that if his decision is upheld in the forthcoming legal challenge, Begum will be left without a nationality. This will set a dangerous precedent for future citizenship deprivation decisions. Moreover, as articulated by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the UK considers itself to be ‘be at the heart of the developing infrastructure which supports the international rule of law’. So although some believe that revoking Begum’s citizenship protects British values, it arguably does the opposite by suggesting that the UK does not, in fact, take its international obligations seriously.

Begum’s case illustrates that the hostile environment is not only reserved for immigrants entering the UK for the first time but that it extends to British nationals. Our politicians are making decisions to breach our international obligations and go against the values they should be upholding. Yes, Begum’s actions should be investigated, questioned and dealt with. But this is the role of the courts, not the media. And while we’re examining her values, it is important to take note of what this whole ordeal says about Britain’s. In my eyes, it puts the very foundation of our democracy, the rule of law, into the balance, as well as the plain old notion of responsibility.

Illustration by Mae Farrow. 


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