Shamima Begum was born and brought up in London, as a British citizen. Six years ago, when she was 15, she and two other girls, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, left the UK to join Islamic State. Today, Ms Begum is the widowed mother of three dead children, imprisoned in the al-Roj camp in territory controlled by Syrian Kurds. On Friday, the UK supreme court reversed a decision by the court of appeal, judged that she is not entitled to have her British citizenship restored, and that she should not be allowed to return to the UK to fight her case in person.
These are wrong rulings. The UK is the correct place for an examination of this British-born woman’s mistakes or crimes, however horrific. By exiling her, as the court decided that the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, was entitled to do, the UK is ducking its international responsibilities. Ms Begum cannot properly instruct lawyers. The court held out the faint hope that a “fair hearing” could possibly take place at some future date. In the meantime, it is hard to see why other countries, or non-state actors such as the Syrian Kurds, should have to detain British fighters or their families (around 60 British adults and children remain in detention in Syria). For Britain to offload Ms Begum, on grounds that this would not make her stateless because her heritage entitles her to apply for citizenship of Bangladesh (where she has never been), is an abuse of position and of history.
While the UK government believes that Ms Begum’s return would go against the public interest, the opposite is true. To prevent similar things from happening in the future, it is important to understand how a schoolgirl became radicalised to the point that she quit the country, including the role played by online grooming. Ms Begum was married within days of her arrival in Syria, while still a child and below the legal age of consent, to a fighter almost twice her age. Clearly, and as the security services have acknowledged, it is arguable that she and the other recruits (Ms Sultana is dead, and Ms Abase’s fate is unknown) were victims of terrorism-linked sex trafficking.
Members of the public, as well as Mr Javid, were understandably horrified by comments Ms Begum made in 2019, when she told a Times journalist that she had “no regrets” about her decision to go to Syria, and described herself as “unfazed” by the sight of a severed head. But whether Ms Begum was an active participant in acts of terror, or a traumatised witness as some observers believe, she should face justice in the UK. Policies that treat British citizens with ties to other countries differently from those without are not only unjust but discriminatory, since black and minority ethnic people are far more likely to be deported or stripped of citizenship as a result.
Some may dismiss such arguments as soft-hearted. But there is more than one way to look at the national interest. While the government’s overriding objective appears to have been avoiding Ms Begum’s return, her unjust treatment is the greater threat. For decades, community cohesion was a goal of public policy. To be united as a community, with a working social contract, people need to feel a sense of togetherness in spite of their differences. Perhaps not many people will shed tears over Ms Begum. But by developing this new protocol, whereby citizens with links to other nations can be thrown out of the country, ministers and judges risk driving a wedge between Britons.