Be afraid, be very afraid
Gaby Rubin looks at the implications of the decision to deny Shamima Begum her British citizenship
Any person who thinks they are British and can therefore sleep safely, knowing they cannot be deported - think again. If you are the child of someone not born in Britain, even if you have your own British passport, your situation has become less secure, following the supreme court decision of February 26.
For the last four years, we in Britain have been watching and decrying Donald Trump’s ‘Ice’ - the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Ice deports people willy-nilly, but first separates children from parents, with no records kept of what happens to either parents or children, so that the family can be reunited. And, once someone is deported, even if illegally, they are held in Mexico and refused permission to come back to the US to appeal, even just to talk to their lawyers.
There has been a saying around for many years to the effect that, when the US sneezes, the UK gets pneumonia, and Ice obviously helps in this process (pun intended). And here we are, following in its footsteps with the imprimatur of the British supreme court.
If one reads the court’s decision (which is complex), various issues stand out. One in particular reads:
On February 19 2019 the home secretary was invited by his officials to deprive Ms Begum of her British citizenship on the basis that it would be conducive to the public good, due to the threat that she was assessed to pose to national security.
And goes on to say:
The security service considered that any individual assessed to have travelled to Syria and to have aligned with Isil posed a threat to national security. It was noted that individuals, such as Ms Begum, who were radicalised as minors, might be considered victims. That did not, however, change the threat which the security service assessed Ms Begum as posing to the United Kingdom. It did not justify putting the United Kingdom’s national security at risk by not depriving her of her citizenship (my emphasis - GR).1
What is the point of refusing her admission? She has never actually participated in any acts of violence. Can she really be that big a threat? Or is this, as it certainly appears to the Bangladeshi community, a “shot across the bow” to any Muslim who has opinions not liked by the British state? Can there be any better showcase for the lack of humanity of that state?
So what is her story? A little more than six years ago, following the rebellious tendencies of teenagers the world over, three Muslim female 15-year-olds left Britain for territory ruled by Islamic State. They were all three quickly married to IS fighters. During the ensuing battles, two of these three young women were killed. The third, Shamima Begum, had three children when she was between 16 and 19, all of whom died in infancy. She is now alone in a camp in Syria, surrounded by armed guards.
Shamima Begum, like the other two women who left, was born and brought up in Britain. She was born on August 25 1999 - an important date for the Bangladeshi government (see below). She had never visited her parents’ homeland of Bangladesh. She had one citizenship and one only - British.
Shamima’s case is bound up with several issues, her rights as a British citizen being one. Why would an impressionable young woman want to live in a country she had never been to before? How did she get out of Britain and into Syria? What was the role played by women in IS territory? What kind or how much discussion did she go through during her time with IS? What, if any, ‘debriefing’ or ‘re-education’ is in place in Britain for those returning from Syria? I do not intend to deal with all of these here. However, the question of citizenship is important not only for this individual but for anyone born here whose parents are from abroad, and for those who are dual nationals.
Right to nationality
Statelessness is defined by three United Nations conventions (1951, 1954 and 1961). Britain is a signatory to all three, with some caveats.
The 1951 convention lays down that a stateless person is someone who is “not recognised as a national by any state under the operation of its law”.2 Broadly, the 1954 convention establishes the rights of stateless persons, and the 1961 document puts forward a policy for reducing statelessness.
The minimum standards of treatment for stateless people established in 1954 include - but are not limited to - the right to education, employment and housing. Importantly, it also guarantees stateless people a right to identity, travel documents and administrative assistance. (Many South Africans exiled during the apartheid era - including Terry Bell, who has spoken at a CPGB London Communist Forum - entered Britain with UN papers back in the 1960s.
The 1961 convention aimed to prevent statelessness and to reduce it over time - originally 10 years, but we can see how well that worked. The relevant parts do the following: they establish the right of every person to a nationality; all states which sign the conventions must have nationality laws that prevent statelessness from birth and later in life; states which sign agree that any child born in their country acquire that citizenship if they do not acquire any other (my emphasis - GR). Lastly, the very limited situation in which a state can deprive someone of their nationality, even if this would leave them stateless, was set out in 1961.3
Although the UK is a signatory to all of these, its practice has been mixed. Its definition of statelessness goes beyond the 1954 convention. For cases such as Shamima Begum, Britain’s nationality law supposedly “prevents statelessness in the case of most children born in the UK or to British nationals abroad”.4
However, as always, it is not as simple as one would think. In 2018, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) ruled that two Bangladeshi men should have their British citizenship restored. The government had wrongly decided to deny them British citizenship because they were of Bangladeshi descent and could therefore be Bangladeshi nationals. Is there now, according to the supreme court, one law for women and another for men?
Bangladesh's nationality laws say that any individual who has parents with Bangladeshi citizenship is automatically entitled to citizenship, but they must claim it before they are 21. Shamima Begum is over 21 and has never applied for Bangladeshi citizenship.
Sajid Javid, the home secretary in 2019, removed Begum’s British citizenship after she was found by a reporter in a camp for IS captives. Her last baby, who was ill, was with her, and she originally wanted the baby to go to her parents in Britain for treatment. This was refused by the UK government and shortly thereafter the baby died. This raises other questions about the ‘caring’ role of the British government towards their citizens abroad. But to carry on...
The SIAC, to whom Begum’s lawyers appealed against Javid’s decision, ruled that the decision did not make her stateless, as she had the right to claim Bangladeshi citizenship, being at that point still under 21. Confusingly, the SIAC also ruled that her lawyers were correct to say that she could not have an effective appeal under the circumstances, but ruled in favour of Javid anyway.
However, even at that point the Bangladeshi government stated that Shamima Begum was not a citizen and under no circumstances would she be allowed into the country. What is more, the Bangladeshi foreign minister stated that if, by some chance, she entered Bangladesh, because of her time with IS she could be tried as a terrorist and, if found guilty, would be hanged. So the British government wanted her to apply for citizenship to a country she had never even visited and that might hang her. This is what passes for humane caring for young people in Britain.
Begum’s lawyers had been arguing that she should have her citizenship restored so that she could return to Britain to launch an appeal. From the camp, she cannot speak to her lawyers or help in the defence of her citizenship, but the supreme court’s decision seems to have ruled out any possibility of a real appeal.
So where does that leave us? I am not a lawyer, but it appears to me that, according to the supreme court, the home secretary can decide who poses a ‘national security threat’ without giving reasons. So far, the only reason I have seen is that, because Begum ‘chose’ not to leave Syria when she was 18, she must therefore be a security threat.
This brings back eerie memories of another time and another place - remember Rochdale, where police decided that girls as young as 13 had made a “lifestyle choice” by being groomed and becoming prostitutes? Not that they needed care and attention from the state, of course.
Let us leave aside the fact that, for a young woman who has got married and is living in the middle of a war zone, getting out would have been very difficult indeed. Let us leave aside the fact that she bore three children and watched all of them die of illnesses. How long does it take someone who has lost a loved one to grieve?
One statement Begum made was splattered all over the British press. When asked how she felt about the beheading of captives, her reply apparently was that she thought it was okay, because it was done for religious reasons. Now, I wonder where that came from. And I wonder how a sympathetic therapist (or even imam) could have helped her if she was in Britain and back with her family.
What now happens to British citizens and their children stranded in Syria? (Pause for thought for any home secretary or editor of a major newspaper). A lecturer in Islamic Studies at Birmingham University looked at the different possibilities, and concluded the following. The option of allowing those 800 or so Britons who fought with IS, or who were women and children staying with IS, to return home
addresses all three components of radicalisation: extreme belief, extreme belonging and extreme behaviour. We cannot eliminate the risk of terrorist behaviour entirely. Yet by bringing home and observing the rule of law for those who travelled to Daesh, we can reduce that risk and do more. It also challenges the extremist belief that the west does not care about Muslim citizens or that our support of human rights is window-dressing rather than conviction. It also minimises the risk of radical belief and belonging transferring to the next generation through reintegration. It has been demonstrated … that upholding human rights and rule of law [does] not hamper our ability to act, but enhances it, and are essential to long-term success. It shows a positive engagement of belonging, rather than a politics of fear; a willingness to defend what we live for, not just that we live.5
None of this addresses two central points, of course. Why do people like Shamima Begum become alienated and feel the need to adhere to an ideology different from officially sponsored British nationalism? Why do they turn to a dead end like Islamism and not even consider a genuinely emancipatory alternative?
That is the subject of another discussion. However, in the meantime, anyone who is a dual national, or whose parents are from another country, better take care. You have only the ‘good will’ of the home secretary to turn to if you are misled into supporting an ‘anti-British’, ‘terroristic’ ideology.
Perhaps in the future such judgements will be made against those who uphold working class internationalism. So, just to be on the safe side, don’t get caught writing for a communist paper if your parents came from overseas - you too might be considered a ‘security threat’.
supremecourt.uk/cases/docs/uksc-2020-0156-judgment.pdf (my emphasis).↩︎
K Brown. ‘Returning foreign fighters - what are the ethical and practical responsibilities?’ (birmingham.ac.uk/research/perspective/returning-foreign-fighters.aspx).↩︎