Who’s next?

Christopher Bertram · The Case of Shamima Begum

The home secretary, Sajid Javid, has revoked Shamima Begum’s British citizenship. Begum left the UK with two friends four years ago, at the age of 15, to join Daesh. She now finds herself stateless, with a newborn and possibly British baby in a Syrian refugee camp. Public sympathy in the UK has been limited. Begum has said she wasn’t ‘fazed’ by the sight of severed heads in bins, and suggested that the Manchester Arena bombing was payback for airstrikes against Daesh territory. She has regrets, but little remorse. Still, she was born and grew up in the UK, and when she left as a child she had been groomed online by a criminal organisation.

The use of an administrative process to strip Begum of her nationality sets a worrying precedent, if you value the rule of law and are concerned that citizens be protected from tyranny. Someone who has been stripped of their nationality and made stateless loses most of the protections of the state. A dual national who is deprived of the nationality of the country where they have grown up, and where their friends and family live, faces removal to another country, nominally ‘theirs’, where they may know nobody and not speak the language. Legally they are members of that other place; functionally they are not.

Since 2010, successive home secretaries have increased the use of citizenship deprivation powers and widened the field of people against whom action can been taken. Citizenship may now be revoked for ‘serious criminality’. So far this has been used against the members of ‘grooming gangs’, transformed into ‘foreign criminals’ who can be sent ‘home’. Public reaction to their removal will often be ‘good riddance’, but once the precedent is established, others, guilty of less heinous crimes, can also be removed.

Defending deportation flights to Jamaica, Javid referred to those being removed as ‘serious criminals’. Many were guilty only of drug or even driving offences yet could be flushed from the system. They had never formally secured British nationality, but some had known no other home than Britain. The extension of citizenship deprivation potentially allows more people to be shifted to the category of the deportable.

The UK is a party to the 1961 Statelessness Convention and bound not to revoke someone’s nationality if they do not have another one to fall back on. In 2014, the Coalition government weakened the protection: naturalised citizens could lose their British nationality if the secretary of state had ‘reasonable grounds’ for believing they were able to acquire the citizenship of another country. Depriving naturalised citizens of their status is not unproblematic, since it divides society into those who hold their membership securely and those who do not. But at least when people naturalised as adults, swearing allegiance to their new state, it could be argued that they went against their word.

The naturalised are a tiny proportion of the citizens of most countries. Like most British citizens, Begum acquired her nationality at birth. In her case, Javid seems to be relying on her already being legally a citizen of Bangladesh, a country she has never visited. The government in Dhaka, however, has said that she is not a citizen and ‘there is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.’

If Javid’s decision is not overturned by the courts, the vast majority of citizens, for whom losing their citizenship was literally unthinkable, may need to think again. So who is at risk? Potentially, any UK citizen who also holds the nationality of another state, whether they are aware of it or not. And certainly anyone who is naturalised and whose entitlement to another citizenship excites the ‘reasonable belief’ of the home secretary. Add these groups together and you have an awful lot of people.

Anyone in Northern Ireland who holds Irish nationality could be kicked out if this is believed conducive to the public good. Children whose parents thought it wise to get an Irish or other EU passport after Brexit now carry this hidden vulnerability. Every Jew has the right to Israeli citizenship. The British children of citizens of other EU states may grow up with a hidden nationality that makes it easier to kick them out later. And the same goes for those whose parents came from parts of the former British Empire, as in Begum’s case. You might think the government would never do that, even for ‘serious criminals’, at least if they were white and middle-class and with English ancestors going back a bit. You'd probably be right: those who are singled out to be redesignated as not British and marked for exclusion tend to have a ‘funny tinge’ about them.


  • 21 February 2019 at 2:46pm
    Michael Collins says:
    How does any of this affect those who keep their noses clean and their heads down? "Many were guilty only of drug or even driving offence yet could be flushed from the system." I can see that you are well-schooled in these matters and as adept as any lawyer in slippery legalese, but don't think we didn't notice that monolithic "could" in the extract, or the sneaky "only" (a close friend of mine was killed by a drug-driver). Indeed, the whole piece seems a tad fixated in its apprehensiveness about sinister Orwellian authorities wanting to kick people out at the drop of a roach. As for the people with whom Begum chose to consort for years - and with whom I suspect she would still be complicit but for IS's military defeat - I am studying their jurisprudence right now. Robust, for sure; theocratic certainly, but... Well, see what you make of it. Instructional videos are available online.

    • 21 February 2019 at 6:46pm
      CarpeDiem says: @ Michael Collins
      You can oppose the revocation of Begum's citizenship without - in any way, shape or form - condoning her actions.

      Also, "How does any of this affect those who keep their noses clean and their heads down" sounds a bit like "If you are keeping your nose clean and head down, why should you oppose any degree of State surveillance (ostensibly inflicted on the citizens to keep them "safe")".

  • 21 February 2019 at 4:16pm
    Francis FitzGibbon says:
    Remorse: the consequences of recantation in the midst of other jihadi women, and if she ever fell into the hands of the men, and broadcast throughout the world, might be unfortunate for her and the baby. She will always be somebody's traitor. She's stuck. You wonder what was the urgency about the revocation of her citizenship, as she's not likely to get out of Syria in a hurry, and before it was clear whether she could claim another nationality and avoid statelessness. Something to do with politics in the UK, and a bait for Corbyn which he has taken.

  • 21 February 2019 at 5:40pm
    jamesmann says:
    So our justice system might be bad, but theirs is worse?

    And post-Windrush, shouldn't we be even keener to scrutinize the reasons given by authorities for kicking out people at the drop of a roach?

  • 21 February 2019 at 7:28pm
    Rich Will says:
    Meanwhile the editor of your counterparts at the TLS, one Stig Abell, is all in favour of taking away her passport. She's a *terrorist* for God's sake.

    He's the same guy who when Editor-in-chief of The Sun published a column which called for gunboats to be used against refugees as part of a "final solution".

  • 21 February 2019 at 8:29pm
    John Cowan says:
    This is a consequence of having a parliament that is superior, both legally and in senority, to your constitution rather than being a creature of it. My U.S. citizenship by ius soli I acquired at birth as a constitutional right, and no Act of Congress or executive order can take it away from me without knowing that they are going to lose in court. If I have done wrong, my country can punish me, but it can't expel me.

    What is more, naturalized citizens can't be stripped of citizenship either, unless it can be proved that they lied on their application or committed heinous crimes before being naturalized.

    Whereas a working majority in Commons is supreme, indeed arbitrary, and your long stops are feeble reeds against it. I hold no brief for Charles I, but his example shows what a Commons with the powers of both the purse and the sword can do if it is so minded. And one of the lessons of the Holocaust is: "Whatever can happen, can happen to you."

  • 21 February 2019 at 8:32pm
    Murphy says:
    This is a case,and is not the only one,since they have been similar in France,Belgium,Australia,even Turkey,of conflicting interests:
    State Vs Citizen,
    Public Interest Vs Private Human Right.
    But is citizenship simply a right?
    Or is it a right that carries some 'weight',a conditional right?!
    And who should be responsible for defining 'reasonable grounds'?
    The Legislator,the Home Secretary or the Courts?
    Of course there are moral and practical issues for all these wannabe stateless citizens, but...but Governments should find a way of putting them into a system of either 'surveillance' or 'constraint', they need to adopt some sensible precautions.
    But above all,the way to resolve problems like Begun's is by debating them...openly .

  • 21 February 2019 at 9:08pm
    freshborn says:
    If we extract the 'slippery slope' fallacy, what argument remains against the government's actions in this particular case?

    It doesn't weaken the principle of citizenship to accept that one rescinds one's rights by going abroad to fight for ISIS - not merely a terrorist organisation, but an evil one. Rather, the principle of citizenship is weakened when reactionary moral relativists use it to defend such people -- not on any moral grounds, but technical legal grounds, with hefty doses of sophistry (e.g. lumping it together with cases of driving offenses or hypothetical pogroms). If the argument for something unjust is merely "it's the law", the response is obvious, since laws are mutable.

    Islamophobes might be keen to revoke her citizenship, but to contend with them on this does nothing to improve the status of Muslims in our country (many of whom are here to escape from ISIS, not to defect from them). We can defend the rights of Muslims without defending the rights of outright, unrepentant terrorists. With much greater ease, in fact.

  • 21 February 2019 at 9:52pm
    DJL says:
    It is a bit premature to state that she is stateless, as that has not been established, and what the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister has said about it doesn't settle the question (it seems to me that statement was more political than, say, official or indeed legal).

    It is worth noting that, barring naturalisation, one doesn't usually have to apply for citizenship, dual or otherwise - you are automatically a citizen of whatever countries you qualify for when you are born (I should know, as I have dual citizenship). In the case of Shamina, the BBC consulted the right people, and this is what they report:

    "Expert lawyers with experience in Bangladeshi citizenship cases have told the BBC that under Bangladesh law, a UK national like Ms Begum, if born to a Bangladeshi parent, is automatically a Bangladeshi citizen. That means that such a person would have dual nationality.

    If the person remains in the UK, their Bangladeshi citizenship remains in existence but dormant.

    Under this "blood line" law, Bangladeshi nationality and citizenship lapse when a person reaches the age of 21, unless they make efforts to activate and retain it.

    So, it is Ms Begum's age, 19, that is likely - in part - to have given Home Office lawyers and the home secretary reassurance there was a legal basis for stripping her of her UK citizenship.

    ...Her Bangladeshi citizenship, if established, would remain intact until she reaches 21, even if she has never visited the country or made active efforts to retain her citizenship."

    In any case, this will certainly end up in court and the government may well lose. The troubling precedent is not actually this one case, as this post claims - there have been similar cases before. The real problem is the precedent May established when she was Home Secretary.

  • 22 February 2019 at 11:27am
    Michael Collins says:
    carpediem: I do not oppose the revocation of Begum's citizenship. I consider it a correct and principled decision by Sajid Javid. Your second point is garbled and I don't fully understand what you're trying to say. State surveillance in a digital age is surely a given, accepted by all, and I'm far more concerned with mavericks such as Zuckerberg and his ilk prying into my virtual wardrobe. Keep Cambridge Analytica out of Acacia Avenue.
    jamesmann: Theirs is far worse, of course, and it's disingenuous of you to adopt default-mode classic liberal relativism on the point. 'Who's to say who's right etc'. Well, IS does, unequivocally, no arguments! The Windrush business was scandalous and had extra impact for me as one of neighbours in Hackney came over to London on the Windrush and a nicer, harder-working man you couldn't wish to meet. I trust bureaucratic heads rolled... but I fear we know the true outcome.
    Rich Will: You discharge your fusillade with much sound and fury but Stig Abell was managing editor of the Sun, not editor-in-chief. He held the same position as the ineffably charming Richard Caseby at The Sunday Times. They're lads all right, those managing editors.

  • 22 February 2019 at 2:28pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    I’m afraid you spoil your appeal for an open debate on this subject by the snide reference to a ‘funny tinge’.

  • 22 February 2019 at 7:32pm
    Graucho says:
    Those who left to join the Islamic state or caliphate chose to pledge their allegiance to a foreign power dedicated amongst other things to our overthrow. Logically, the U.K. government should have recognised the caliphate at the time and stripped any U.K. national who went there of their U.K. citizenship as they were now subjects of the caliphate and while they were at it, declared war on said caliphate. That should have kept the lawyers happy. As for where we are now, not a penny of tax payers money should be spent on helping any of them return and if they do they should be charged under the treason act.

  • 22 February 2019 at 8:14pm
    Michael Collins says:
    Graucho - I vaguely recall some MPs were looking into updating the Treason Acts, which date from late medieval times. Did anything come of that? Still, not a worry for the lawmakers of IS as medievalism suits them down to the stony ground.

    • 22 February 2019 at 9:08pm
      Graucho says: @ Michael Collins
      Seems it was last updated in 1861 As you say live by medievalism perish by medievalism.

  • 23 February 2019 at 12:02am
    FoolCount says:
    Well, tough shit. At least nobody cut her head off. So it's not all bad.

  • 23 February 2019 at 1:30am
    Doc TH says:
    "Begum has said she wasn’t ‘fazed’ by the sight of severed heads in bins, and suggested that the Manchester Arena bombing was payback for airstrikes against Daesh territory. She has regrets, but little remorse. "
    If you folks in the UK wish to allow her to return, you are welcome to her. To me, her actions and beliefs are prima facie evidence that she is far outside the pale of what I had considered core principles of the UK. But maybe not,,,

  • 5 March 2019 at 8:43pm
    Pepysian says:
    @Michael Collins ‘Keep their noses clean and their heads down’? Where do you live 1930s Russia?

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