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  • Writer's pictureSian Hourican

The ISIS bride - can an individual really be left stateless?

For many people, statelessness conjures images of war-torn, under-privileged countries, ravaged by inequality and corruption and perceived to be in far-flung regions of the world; however, the recent developments surrounding so-called ‘jihadi brides’ have brought the issue under a new spotlight.

In February 2015, Shamima Begum left her home in Bethnal Green, London, at the age of 15 and accompanied by two schoolmates; she ended up in Raqqa, married a Dutch-born convert and fought for ISIS. When she was discovered in a refugee camp by The Times newspaper in 2019, she claimed to want to come home for her unborn child and informed the reporters that she had had two children prior to this, both of whom had died.

One of her two friends had died as well, although the fate of her other friend is yet to be determined. This set into motion Shamima Begum’s fight to return to the life she abandoned in the UK, in the hopes that she must remain there no longer, detained by Kurdish-led forces in Syria.

In the eyes of the government and Home Office, Begum poses a very real and credible threat to national security; their stance was to revoke her citizenship and refuse her entry into the country. Had she been under 18, the state would have had a duty of care to both Begum and her unborn child, however, as an adult, it appears they are perfectly content to leave her to fend for herself.

This triggered an intervention into Begum’s case by the non-governmental organisation Liberty, with the challenge to her denationalization resting on three main arguments; firstly, revoking her citizenship leaves her stateless, which is unlawful in accordance with international human rights law unless another state acknowledges one’s citizenship of their state and therefore accepts responsibility for protecting the rights and freedoms of that individual. Secondly, whilst Begum remains in Syria, she is at risk of being killed or subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, neither of which are permissible under international human rights law, and finally, Begum has the right to defend herself, which she cannot effectively do from outside the UK.

It has been claimed by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) that Begum is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother, therefore the UK is not forcing statelessness upon her and is therefore not in contravention of international human rights law. The corollary to this is the complex nature of Bangladeshi nationality law; the Citizenship Act 1951 states that dual nationality is not permitted unless the individual in question is under 21 (which Begum is).

Moreover, the issue of impartiality within Bangladesh’s Supreme Court was dismissed, with the SIAC stating that they “had no evidence of a case in which the Supreme Court had accepted a patently wrong argument put forward by the Government”. With regards to Begum’s chances of effectively defending herself from outside the UK, the Committee did find that she would be unable to participate in her appeal in any meaningful way and, as a result, the appeal process would not be effective or fair.

In July 2020, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that Begum can return to the country to continue the process. There are inherent dangers here, and the Home Office is aware of the precarious position this appeal could put them in; if they cannot successfully counter Begum’s right of appeal, this could result in any and all individuals deprived of UK citizenship in the name of national security theoretically being permitted to return and appeal their own cases.

It is therefore a momentous occasion for the Supreme Court, as they will be ruling on essential issues surrounding appeal rights and the circumstances which could allow for the deprivation of nationality. As a consequence, this ruling would indicate the position of the UK regarding what is quite a fundamental principle in law- individuals being afforded the opportunity to appeal their case in person.

Fast-forward to February 2021; the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Begum’s right to appeal had not been breached when she was prohibited from returning to the UK, with the Home Office reiterating that her return “would create significant national security risks”.

Lord Reed, president of the Supreme Court, defended this ruling, stating that the right to a fair hearing could not supersede other considerations, such as the safety of the public, however Liberty have been heavily critical of this move, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent; one of the organisation’s lawyers, Rosie Brighouse, points out the fact that the security services have safely and successfully facilitated the return of a significant number of people from Syria, and yet they’ve chosen to make Shamima a target, making an example out of her and dooming her to a life in a refugee camp.

Begum is homeless, stateless, and just 21 years of age. One has to ask themselves if this is an appropriate response to the manipulation, and grooming, of a 15-year-old girl- whilst there must, of course, be a degree of culpability, revoking Begum’s citizenship seems like a rather petty and vengeful move, as opposed to a holistic or pragmatic one; it would appear that the Home Office are more concerned with appearing soft, or weak, by allowing her to return than upholding international human rights law.

One cannot help but wonder how a Labour government (or a non-Conservative one, at least) would have handled such a sensitive and important matter.

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