Is the UK using citizenship to avoid its responsibilities?

Shamima Begum
Shamima Begum, a British-born teenager who fled home to join Islamic State. File photo: Reuters

When UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced the decision to prevent Shamima Begum from returning to the UK, many were thrilled—including Bangladeshis. The 19-year-old British citizen of Bangladeshi heritage had left London in 2015 to become an ISIS bride. Now, in a Syrian camp, Shamima's plea to return to the UK to give her infant son a better life has understandably been met with popular derision. However, it has also raised a worrying legal question: how can a British national be prevented from entering the UK?

The solution, according to Home Secretary Javid, is to remove her citizenship, thereby barring her from returning. (As an aside, her son, born before his mother lost citizenship, is a UK citizen and eligible to return.) Javid cannot render a British national stateless. However, he has argued that since Shamima's mother has a Bangladeshi passport, this makes Shamima eligible for citizenship in Bangladesh—so the removal of her British nationality doesn't make her stateless.

Bangladesh, however, has maintained that she is not a Bangladeshi citizen. There is, indeed, a provision in our citizenship law that allows children born abroad to Bangladeshi citizens to inherit the nationality, but only if this birth is registered with a Bangladeshi authority. This was not done, and for all intents and purposes, the first time the government heard that Shamima is one of their subjects is when the UK Home Secretary "Britsplained" it to them.

So, yes, Shamima Begum is currently stateless. This means Sajid Javid's decision will not stand up in a court of law—largely because he has called so much media attention to it.

Regardless, the complex nature of this case, the removal of citizenship, and the public support that Javid's decision received, make this a case worth dissecting. We can look at it from four different overlapping angles: human rights, security, civic rights and state sovereignty.

The humanitarian angle is a non-starter. Yes, Shamima Begum was indoctrinated and lured away from home at the age of 15 by an older man, someone with the glamour of war and zealotry. Yes, statelessness means a life where she can claim the protection of no nation in a world of nations—there is a reason nationality is a fundamental human right and there are UN conventions against statelessness (signed by the UK). An adolescent crush has doomed her to exist outside the normal human order. Compassion runs dry, though. ISIS has launched attacks specifically targeting teenagers in the UK, to say nothing of the death and barbarity it has perpetrated in the Middle East. Former Yazidi captives have spoken out against the cruelty of ISIS brides like Shamima, who herself shows little remorse for her years with the so-called Caliphate. It is very rich of her to want to raise her son in a society she wished to dismantle. It is hard to feel sympathy for someone who admits that severed heads don't faze her.

I completely understand anyone who doesn't feel any charity towards her. I also understand anyone who thinks statelessness is the least she deserves for joining ISIS.

I understand, but there is something quite odd about this. Hundreds of ISIS fighters have quietly been returning to the UK for years. ISIS returnees are a major European headache, with Trump urging his European allies (as they still are, for now) to take back their citizens and try them domestically. If grown adults who were actual combatants can go back home and face the normal justice system… why can't Shamima? What is so inherently more dangerous about a teenaged single mother that she had to have her rights as a UK national compromised?

The answer to that is simple: there is nothing. The case was getting media attention, and Sajid Javid, a brown son of immigrants in the Conservative Party, saw an opportunity to publicly be seen as willing to stand up against ISIS. Such posturing might make him the next PM, because the United Kingdom is a country that doesn't seem to realise when its civic rights are being demolished.

The civic aspect of Shamima's citizenship withdrawal is the most troubling. The UK has for some time now pursued a policy of withdrawing citizenship from dual nationals it considers a security risk. This creates a bizarre scenario where two people—both citizens of the UK and entitled to equal treatment—are likely to face differing penalties based on what other nationalities they may have. The UK's use of counter-terrorism to exclude and surveil British Muslims gains a frightening new dimension through this: those who are first and second generation immigrants and still have citizenship ties to other countries can now literally be excluded from the UK. This goes beyond counter-terrorism and into other areas, such as the withdrawal of citizenship from pedophiles of South Asian origin. Such issues are already deeply racialised, and making a system where a brown Briton can lose citizenship for a crime while a white Briton would not, is simply unacceptable.

When the UK expands towards the withdrawal of citizenship status from those who are not dual nationals and have only the potential to gain another citizenship—as it has with Shamima—you enter territory that is pure nonsense. It is ludicrous to say that someone is not stateless just because they might get citizenship elsewhere—they have not gotten that citizenship, and so yes, Mr. Javid, they are in fact stateless. It further puts every single UK citizen with an immigrant background into a grey zone. If anyone's parents were citizens elsewhere, a person born and raised in the middle of Cornwall is now eligible for denaturalisation, according to the UK. This, again, is unacceptable. Especially so when clearly the UK has no idea what 'eligible for other citizenship' actually entails. It has indulged in a fantasy that Shamima is a Bangladeshi citizen, and our state has decided she is not.

If the UK decides to interpret other states' citizenship laws on their behalf in order to justify making its citizens stateless, it intrudes into the sovereign rights of other states to decide who is or is not a citizen. If the UK is so deeply concerned about its own sovereignty and protecting its borders, it's pretty darn rich of them to try to violate another state's sovereignty and another state's borders by arbitrarily deciding that actually this UK citizen they no longer want belongs somewhere else after all. The UK is trying to wash its hands clean of Shamima Begum; but she does not cease to exist. She becomes a Syrian problem, and frankly they have bigger fish to fry. They have tried to make her a Bangladeshi problem, and we have put our feet down.

Sajid Javid and the UK are not being tough on terror. They are being cowards who are trying to render their own citizens stateless based on their ethnic origins and then attempting to export persons they consider security risks to other countries.

Shamima Begum is a citizen of the UK. It's time they grew up and accepted responsibility for her.


Zoheb Mashiur is an artist and an MA candidate in International Migration at the University of Kent. Read more of this sort of thing in Disconnect: Collected Short Fiction.