Shamima Begum ruling: a threat to the right to have rights

A summary and critique of revoking citizenship.

In 2015, Shamima Begum, then a fifteen year old child, and two of her friends left the United Kingdom, after being groomed online by ISIS members to join the terrorist organisation. She subsequently married an ISIL fighter upon arriving in Syria. When Shamima Begum was 19 years old, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped her of her UK citizenship, citing national security issues as well as the argument that she had Bangladeshi citizenship. The South Asian country had made it clear that they would not accept her and would execute her if she came on its territory.

The questions which should have arisen are: firstly, with respect to Britain’s internet security and safety laws, how was a fifteen year old child able to be exposed to a terrorist organisation to the extent that she was groomed into moving to Syria? And secondly, how was Shamima Begum able to go through British airport security using her sister’s passport?

In February 2023, the Special Immigrations Appeal Commission upheld the Home Office’s decision to strip Shamima Begum of her British citizenship. Begum argued against the removal on nine grounds, however for the sake of brevity and ensuring layman readers are aware of the key parts of the judgement, this article will only focus on two grounds of appeal. The first ground of appeal was that the Home Secretary had failed to consider that she may have been trafficked into Syria and that they had contravened their own policy. The second ground of appeal was that the UK government had failed to meet its obligations under Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right not to be held in slavery or servitude) in not providing Shamima Begum protection and instead revoking her citizenship and leaving her stranded in a camp in North-East Syria. 

The Commission found that there is credible reason to believe that Begum had been trafficked into Syria to be sexually exploited and that many State institutions had failed in their duty to prevent her from leaving the country as she did and making her way from Turkey to Syria. However, it held that a credible suspicion as to whether the young girl had been trafficked was not enough to restrain the Home Secretary’s power to strip her of British citizenship.

The Commission also found that the Home Secretary was under no formal obligation to consider whether she had been trafficked in his decision. Another finding of the judgement is that the Home Secretary’s advisers had painted a simplistic picture of Begum’s travels to Syria to join ISIS, and that the conclusion that she had chosen to go on her own accord was an insensitive and blunt one. However, it held that the conclusion was an important part of the Security Services’ national security assessment. In other words, national security is allowed to trump human trafficking concerns in this case. 

Importance + Critique

The deprivation of citizenship is a decision which should not be considered lightly (After all, it was Hannah Arednt who said that citizenship should be the right to have rights). This is the case in many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.

Since 2006, 173 people had been deprived of their UK citizenship due to national security reasons and 289 people had been deprived of their citizenship due to reasons pertaining to fraud. Before that, the UK government had not taken such a decision since 1973. 

The case of Shamima Begum at the SIAC is a bewildering one. The Commission found that it was possible that Begum was trafficked into Syria and that the Home Secretary had been given a one dimensional picture of the situation by his advisers, yet these factors did not help Shamima’s case. Colin Yeo highlights the fact that the Home Secretary not having to consider the trafficking element of the case should have been enough to conclude that the deprivation of citizenship was unlawful. This is due to the Commission’s judgement stating that the Home Secretary need not give weightage to the trafficking factor. This is different to not considering a factor at all.

The committee has also acknowledged that Ms. Begum had Bangladeshi citizenship till the age of 21 and is no longer a citizen of that country. However, that did not stop them from leaving her stateless by denouncing her citizenship. 

The implications of this judgement are varied and many. Most importantly, citizenship is not a matter of right and may be taken away at any point in time in the eventuality of non adherence to national laws, which while prudent and just, also means that there is no room for redemption, especially for people of colour. The fact that the Home Office was able to deprive Shamima of her citizenship, thus rendering her stateless, puts non-British origin people of the United Kingdom at risk. Shamima Begum’s case is unique, not because she is the first person to lose citizenship, but because throughout the trial, she was treated as an adult and not a child. She was not seen as a child who was groomed into joining ISIL, trafficked and then sexually abused by an adult and forced to bear children. She was seen as an adult who had voluntarily joined the terrorist group, came to regret it and then wanted the UK government to help her leave. Adultification of children of colour is common in institutions and leads to (as is the case here) the rights and protection of children not being guaranteed.

As of now, the judgement upholds the logic of the government’s decision to deprive citizenship. This means the government can deprive people of citizenship without giving weightage or any consideration to any mitigating circumstances. The Home Secretary can put these factors aside and allow national security to trump all rather than balancing the rights of the individual along with national security considerations. What would this mean for victims who were trafficked into committing serious crimes or joining organisations which engage in such activity? Trafficking in general is a very complicated and nuanced issue in the law, and for the government to be allowed to make decisions in such cases hastily with very simplistic advice means that the government is allowed to make a strong, miscalculated legal move on a whim. 

This case is most likely to go to the European Court of Human Rights (the highest ranking Court a case in the UK can go to). One can only hope that the Court carries out its duty of upholding the rights of Shamima Begum and reversing the precedent set by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.