British Citizenship

A brief analysis of the Shamima Begum citizenship revocation

By Amer Zaman

on March 25, 2023

Read Time: 8 Minutes

A recurrent and powerful lightning-rod story in the UK news headlines of recent years has been the story of Shamima Begum, the now-23-year-old who left the UK as a schoolgirl in order to join Islamic State (IS), and who has since fought a legal battle against the revocation of her UK citizenship.

In late February 2023, a further chapter was written in the hugely controversial and emotive story of the British-born woman, with the news that she had lost a challenge over then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripping her of her citizenship in 2019.

In an indicator of the complexity of the dispute, though, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) concluded that there was a “credible suspicion” that Ms Begum had been trafficked to Syria for “sexual exploitation”. The tribunal further stated that there had been “arguable breaches of duty” by state bodies in allowing her to travel to the country.

Nonetheless, Mr Justice Jay said to the semi-secret court handling her case that her appeal had been fully dismissed. This means that the former Bethnal Green Academy student continues to be stuck in a northern Syrian camp, having been barred from coming back to the UK.

Why was Shamima Begum stripped of UK citizenship?

Shamima Begum was born in the UK on 25th August 1999, and was raised by parents of Bangladeshi origin in Bethnal Green in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

On 17th February 2015, the then-15-year-old Ms Begum travelled with two other east London schoolgirls – subsequently referred to as the “Bethnal Green trio” – to Syria. It was reported in the British press just days later that counter-terrorism police had opened an international search for the three girls. Ms Begum quickly went on to marry an IS fighter, and gave birth to three children, all of whom have died.

The effective collapse of the self-styled IS caliphate in January 2019, following a succession of military defeats, led to the eventual surrender of Ms Begum and her husband, before she was taken to the Al-Hawl camp in north-east Syria. In February 2019, she gave interviews to a number of TV and print journalists, including from UK newspaper The Times. On 18th February, the then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid received a Ministerial Submission, supported by other statements and assessments, recommending that Ms Begum’s UK citizenship be removed. Mr Javid accepted that recommendation, and made a deprivation order – under section 40(2) of the British Nationality Act 1981 – on the ground that doing so would be conducive to the public good. It was judged that a national security risk would be presented by her return to the UK.

The latest chapter in the ongoing legal saga surrounding Ms Begum  

This most recent decision does not mark the first legal setback that Ms Begum has faced in relation to the decision to deprive her of her citizenship.

In February 2020, the same commission had rejected the argument by her legal team that the removal of her citizenship had rendered her “de facto stateless”. It sided with the position of the Home Office that as she technically had the right to Bangladeshi citizenship, the department wasn’t legally obliged to allow her to retain her UK rights. However, Bangladesh’s ministry of foreign affairs has previously stated that she is not a Bangladeshi citizen, and that there was “no question” of her being permitted to enter the South Asian country.

More recently, in February 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Ms Begum would not be allowed to come back to the UK and fight her citizenship case. In a unanimous ruling, the court said that the refusal of permission to return had not breached her rights.

Fast-forward to February 2023, and in his summary of the appeal outcome, Mr Justice Jay stated that the existence of the “suspicion” that Ms Begum had been trafficked to Syria for “sexual exploitation” was “insufficient” for her to succeed on arguments that the decision to take away her UK citizenship failed to respect her human rights. He further stated, in his write-up of the judgment on the SIAC panel’s behalf, that it was up to those advising the Home Secretary to consider and assess whether Ms Begum’s travel was voluntary.

Who can lose British citizenship?

Citizenship is a legal status and relation between an individual and a state, which puts in place certain legal rights and duties. Being a citizen of the UK legally entitles the given person to live in the country and vote, as well as to gain access to services such as welfare, healthcare, and education.

However, the UK Government also has the power to remove a person’s citizenship in certain circumstances. This power has been in place since the passing into law of the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act. It is presently contained within section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981.

The Home Office states that there are two potential reasons why someone might be deprived of UK citizenship. These are:

  • Where it is “conducive to the public good”. The department says this is “reserved for those who pose a threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm”, for example in response to activities such as those involving espionage, acts of terrorism, war crimes, or serious organised crime
  • On the grounds of fraud. This is in reference to individuals who obtained UK citizenship through fraudulent means, which would mean that they were not effectively entitled to citizenship in the first place.

For the period from 2010 to 2018 – the most recent figures on record – an average of 19 people a year had their citizenship removed where this was judged to be “conducive to the public good”. Over the same period of time, an average of 17 people a year were deprived of citizenship on the grounds of fraud.

What have been the implications of the Nationality and Borders Act for citizenship removal?

Concerns have also been voiced in recent times in relation to the potential impacts on those facing deprivation of citizenship arising from the Nationality and Borders Act, which received Royal Assent on 28th April 2022.

This Act makes it easier for the Home Secretary, in certain circumstances, to deprive someone of UK citizenship without informing the person in question. National security concerns are an example of such a circumstance, as well as the given individual having been prosecuted for a serious crime.

In an online “factsheet” on what was then the Nationality and Borders Bill – the provisions having not yet become law at that time – in March 2022, the Home Office said that the Bill only allowed the department to remove someone’s citizenship without prior notification “in exceptional circumstances”. The department said that the Bill did not change any existing right of appeal, and did not widen the reasons why someone could have their UK citizenship removed.

The Home Office factsheet also reiterated that any decision to remove a person’s UK citizenship “always comes with a right of appeal”.

An emotive, but also landmark legal dispute

The case of Shamima Begum seems to have been one about which almost everyone has had an opinion – in many cases, strongly held. It has been a dispute touching at the heart of what it is to be a UK citizen, and the case has prompted discussion over how “conditional” such citizenship can be.

There have also been ongoing questions about the extent – if at all – to which the Home Secretary’s original decision to deprive Ms Begum of her UK citizenship complies with national and international law. Indeed, many experts in international law were quick to suggest in 2019 that the measure was illegal.

With regard to the arguments over the legality or otherwise of the Home Secretary’s deprivation of Ms Begum’s citizenship, some observers have contended that the move left Ms Begum stateless, or was arbitrary in ways that violated the UK’s international obligations.

A key point of reference for many experts in relation to this case has been the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The Convention, while envisaging only a few narrowly defined cases in which someone could be made stateless, allowed state parties to maintain a right to deprive persons of citizenship in accordance with national laws, if these applied at the moment the Convention was accessed.

At the time of its ratification of the aforementioned Convention in 1966, the UK declared that, even if this resulted in statelessness, it maintained the right to deprive a naturalised citizen of their nationality in the event of such a person having “conducted himself in a manner seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of Her Britannic Majesty.”

However, that particular right was abolished with the amendment of the British Nationality Act in 2002. In any case, having been born in the UK, Ms Begum is not a naturalised citizen, and it follows from this that under both national and international law, a decision to take away her citizenship cannot lead to statelessness.

One does not doubt that intense debate will continue to as to the validity or otherwise of Ms Begum’s case in response to the removal of her UK citizenship, and the rights that the UK state and affected individuals may have in similar such cases.

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