Following her discovery by a British journalist in Syria, The Home Office has written to Shamima Begum’s parents to revoke her British citizenship. Shahnaz Ahsan writes that it is a reminder that children of immigrants will never be British enough.
British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has announced that he will be using his special privileges to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, the British-born 19 year old who joined the so-called Islamic State in 2015.
Dubbed an ‘ISIS bride’ who has shown no remorse by the media, it can hardly be claimed that Shamima Begum is a sympathetic character. Aged 15, she chose to leave Britain, the country of her birth, and travel to Syria to support a brutal regime that has killed thousands of innocent people, most of them Muslims. After the loss of two of her children in the wake of the crumbling state, Shamima issued a plea to be allowed to return home, the glamour of being a jihadist’s wife undoubtedly fading.
None of this withstanding, the removal of her citizenship raises serious questions as to the legality of the Home Office decision, and more widely, how Britain deals with high-profile, emotive cases such as this and the dangerous precedent it sets.
“This sets a worrying precedent: that the penalty is higher for those born of immigrants who commit certain crimes, than it is for white Britons. It is worth asking the question what would have happen has Shamima Begum been a white British convert to extremist Islam”
Under international law it is illegal for a country to cause a citizen to become stateless. As such, a country – in this case, the United Kingdom – can only lawfully revoke the nationality of a citizen if that person also holds citizenship elsewhere. In the case of Shamima Begum, the Home Office has stated that as she is eligible to apply for Bangladeshi citizenship through her parental heritage, removing her British citizenship would not necessarily render her stateless. In short – because her parents were born elsewhere, and despite the fact that Shamima herself has never held Bangladeshi citizenship or even visited the country, the Home Secretary can terminate her British citizenship.
This sets a worrying precedent: that the penalty is higher for those born of immigrants who commit certain crimes, than it is for white Britons. It is worth asking the question what would have happen has Shamima Begum been a white British convert to extremist Islam. Where could she have been palmed off to, to become another state’s problems, if her parents had both been white British East Londoners instead?
It is also telling that Britain does not want to recognise the failures that occurred for Shamima Begum to have got to the point of travelling to Syria to join a terrorist organisation in the first place. Bizarrely, suddenly Bangladesh is touted as being the solution, despite the fact that Shamima Begum is, frankly speaking, not Bangladesh’s problem. She was not radicalised as a child on Bangladesh’s watch. She did not attend Bangladeshi state schools. She was not known to the Bangladeshi intelligence services.
Shamima Begum, pictured before she left for Syria at the age of 15
To suggest that another state should come in and pick up the pieces where Britain and British society has failed is ridiculous at best, and racist at worst. The message is that because her parents came from a different place, she is not, and never fully will, be considered British enough. Not British enough to rehabilitate, or even to prosecute, to hold to account for the laws she has contravened.
Undoubtedly, the media attention that Shamima Begum’s case has attracted has been a serious factor in the Home Office decision. But again, the question must be asked whether placating the media and public sentiment should supersede lawful recourse. The answer should, of course, be no. But this is not the first time that the Conservative government has meted out severe punishments to meet public expectation.
“In the case of Shamima Begum, we see a precedent being set where the criminal does not even have to hold another citizenship for Britain to be prepared to take this route. In doing so, we hold immigrants and their descendants for all generations to come to a higher standard”
In 2017 the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, extended anti-terror laws and signed off on the deportation of convicted dual-citizen paedophiles to Pakistan – despite the fact that these crimes were not committed against Pakistani citizens, or on Pakistani soil. The move was more about showing the government to be tough on crime, and in particular, crimes committed by migrants, or those of migrant heritage. The Kent and West Midlands paedophile rings, all white and British born, were held in Britain and jailed.
The argument at the time was that the crimes were so heinous that they warranted the revoking of citizenship, where it was legal to do so – namely, where the perpetrator had another citizenship and would not be left stateless. In the case of Shamima Begum, we see a precedent being set where the criminal does not even have to hold another citizenship for Britain to be prepared to take this route – any indication of foreign-born parentage is sufficient. In doing so, we hold immigrants and their descendants for all generations to come to a higher standard, with different measures of acceptance, than we have for white Britons. The question of citizenship and national identity becomes subject to cheap political wins, rather than being treated with the legal and constitutional reverence it warrants.
It is disturbing that our government is prepared to excommunicate citizens who transgress the law in order to placate the media, rather than being willing to prepare a case, charge, try, and convict criminals within the justice system. To say that Shamima Begum should be properly charged for her crimes and face prosecution, if she ever returns to Britain, does not diminish the severity of her actions. Rather, it demonstrates that Britain – society and government – takes this seriously and is prepared to hold its own citizens to the highest account.
Shahnaz Ahsan is a freelance writer and award-winning creator of short stories. Her debut novel will be released in 2020 by Hodder. Born and raised in West Yorkshire, she has lived in Oxford, London, USA, and Ethiopia, but her flattened northern vowels remain victorious. She is represented by @CWagencyUKFollow @shahnazahsan