Statelessness, forgiveness and a fair trial: Shamima Begum is returning to the UK to fight for her citizenship

Today, the Court of Appeal ruled that Shamima Begum, the London schoolgirl who left the UK to join the Islamic State back in 2015, should be allowed to return to fight for her British citizenship.  

A threat to the nation, or a reformed woman? In 2019 when Begum attempted to return to the UK the response was polarising. Ultimately deemed a threat to national security, especially in a time of heightened terrorist response, the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, took the decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship. 

Although unlawful to render a person stateless under international law, a person’s citizenship can be revoked if they are able to claim citizenship in another country. As Begum is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission found earlier this year that she was lawfully stateless. 

Begum’s legal team are challenging her banishing from the UK on three grounds: it is unlawful as it rendered her statelessness; it exposed her to a risk of death or inhuman and degrading treatment; she was incapable of challenging the decision when not allowed into the country. 

“I just want forgiveness” 

Residing in Camp Roj, a refugee camp in northern Syria, last month Begum’s lawyers argued in the Court of Appeal that she is incapable of effectively challenging the decision when unable to return to the UK. 

Speaking to the BBC in February 2019 from the Syrian refugee camp holding the families of IS fighters, she asked for forgiveness from the UK public. Admitting to her awareness of the decision she took back in 2015, suggesting that she did “have the mentality to make [her] own decisions, and [she] did leave on [her] own knowing that it was a risk.”

“I will admit it is my fault…I just want forgiveness, really, from the UK,” she went on. 

The right to a fair trial 

A fundamental human right, embedded in the UK’s Human Rights Act, and fundamental to the operation and supposed “justice” of our judiciary is the right to a fair trial. The human rights organisation, Liberty, who have become involved in Begum’s appeal stated that the right to a fair trial is “a fundamental part of our justice system and equal access to justice must apply to everyone.”

The Court Appeal hearing that took place today concluded that Begum had been denied a fair hearing due to the inability to make her case from Syria. Despite having suggested that it will not assist her arrival in the UK, the government will now have to find the means to enable Begum to attend court in London. The Home Office has described the decision as being “very disappointing” and intends to appeal the decision. 

Although, in keeping with the rule of law, Lord Justice Flaux appealed to the legal necessity of fairness and justice, suggesting: “Fairness and justice must, on the facts of this case, outweigh the national security concerns, so that the leave to enter appeals should be allowed.” 

Begum’s solicitor, Daniel Furner, additionally notes that “She is not afraid of facing British justice, she welcomes it. But the stripping of her citizenship without a chance to clear her name is not justice, it is the opposite.”

Perspectives on the case 

From a human rights perspective, Begum’s rights have been breached. Resultant to the government’s prioritisation of national security, under the stringent Terrorism Act, and following the precedent set by Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, human rights have become secondary. 

Grey Collier, Liberty’s Advocacy Director, has noted: “It’s clear why they use these archaic banishments and that is to score political points and look tough on terrorism. It has nothing to do with making the public safe. In fact, this leaves us less safe as services are unable to conduct proper investigations that could help prevent young people, like Shamima, from entering terrorist circles in the future.”

From an international perspective, Begum’s risk of being subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment similarly breaches her human rights further in line with the Human Rights Act, but equally breaches the principle of non-refoulement – the international legal custom that prevents states from returning individuals to a country where they may be subjected to persecution.

However, analysis by the BBC’s home affairs correspondence, Dominic Casciani, takes a different approach, implying that the Court of Appeal has “got it totally wrong” and that “if the government wants to avoid the enormous embarrassment of sending a jet to pick her up, it has a matter of weeks to convince the Supreme Court to review the case.”

How embarrassing for the government to be held to account for breaching fundamental human rights. Regardless of the outcome of the case, and regardless of Shamima Begum’s rejection of her home country in favour of IS, she has a right, by law, to tell her side of the story. 

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