On March 9th, it was reported that Shamima Begum’s son, Jarrah had passed away. Since Begum gave birth to Jarrah in February, his health was a constant concern. Eventually medical staff from the Kurdish Red Crescent transferred Begum and Jarrah from al-Hal (Syrian refugee camp) to the main hospital in al-Hasakah City (Northern Syria). Sadly, only a few hours after arriving, Jarrah died.
After this news broke, people began to refer back to the decision made by the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid to revoke Begum’s British citizenship. Begum’s son, Jarrah is one of many children who have died fleeing from fighting in ISIS’ last remaining Syrian foothold. According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 100 children have died en route or shortly after arriving at al-Hawl due to malnutrition and health care.
A British government spokesperson told CNN that “the death of any child is tragic and deeply distressing for the family.” The spokesperson also added that the UK Foreign Office has repeatedly urged people not to travel to Syria since 2011.
“The government will continue to do whatever we can to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and traveling to dangerous conflict zones.”
With Begum’s newborn son’s death, Britain finds itself once again at an ethical and political crossroads. Could this have been prevented? Not familiar with Shamima Begum’s story? Allow us to inform you.
Shamima Begum was one of three schoolgirls to leave London at the age of 15 and travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State group in 2015. The Times’ Anthony Lloyd interviewed Begum in a Syrian refugee camp; by then aged 19 and heavily pregnant with her third child. She described her marriage to a Daesh fighter, brushing off air raids of “bombs every now and again.” With similar coolness, she said witnessing the head of an executed captive in a street bin “didn’t faze [her] at all.” Begum’s husband has since been captured, and all three of her children have died from malnutrition or illness.
The British public outcry was huge, with many chilled by her mundane description and lack of remorse. She claimed ignorance of some of IS’ worst atrocities. Begum also expressed a degree of regret at the death of innocent women and children in the Manchester Arena bombings in 2017. She nonetheless equated this to the killing of Syrian women and children in coalition air strikes. In following interviews, Begum was more apologetic and expressed her hope for sympathy, claiming she was tricked and did not fully understand the step she was taking as she was “newly practising” and had not formed her own interpretation of Islam.
A few days after her initial interview, Home Secretary Sajid Javid stripped Begum of her British citizenship: this is where the real issues truly set in. Not only does this decision throw up complex legal questions, it shows worrying disregard for citizenship as an entity. It demonstrates a lack of responsibility for an individual who was radicalised as a minor within Britain’s own capital.
It is only legally possible to strip an individual of their British nationality if they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere -a person cannot be left stateless. Begum’s mother is Bangladeshi, so Javid’s decision presumably rests on the assumption that Shamima could obtain Bangladeshi citizenship. However, Bangladesh’s foreign minister has said there is “no question” of allowing her into the country.” Under Bangladesh’s laws, if a UK national like Ms Begum is born to a Bangladeshi parent, they automatically become a Bangladeshi citizen, thus giving dual nationality. Nationality and citizenship of Bangladesh lapse once an individual turns 21 unless they proactively attempt to retain it. Shamima Begum is still 19, so this so-called “blood line” law may protect her from statelessness. It is understood that her family are set to challenge the Home Office.
This exposes the fundamental problems: firstly, a two-tier citizenship system and secondly, a dangerous precedent. If your parents were born in the UK and this is the sole citizenship you hold, the Home Office cannot revoke this without rendering you stateless and contravening international law. However, for a British child of an immigrant or dual nationality-holder, this removal of citizenship is feasible. Citizenship is not something which should be a question of degrees or a sliding scale of “how British” an individual can be: it is an absolute.
Needless to say, Begum has engaged in abhorrent activity, and Javid has a responsibility to protect the country from potential threats. However, citizenship is a two-way responsibility. An individual has rights and responsibilities that come with their citizenship while the state has the duty to care for its citizens. Once citizenship becomes something to be thrown around for political capital, this jeopardises an important concept which facilitates justice for all – ostensibly one of Britain’s core values. Citizenship enables rights, it is not a right in itself.
Shamima Begum is not the first citizen involved with Islamic State to attempt to return to the UK, yet the scale and tone of the backlash has been unprecedented. It is important to acknowledge her own agency, and the lack of complete remorse she still seems to feel. However, Begum was radicalised and groomed on home soil as a child, yet there seems to be no acknowledgement of Britain’s responsibility for this failing? We have to question how a fifteen-year-old girl from London can arrive at a point where she felt traveling to Syria to join a terrorist group was the right thing to do with her life, to turning her back on her home and family. At the very least, there has been a failure to protect a child from extremism.
The more cynical among us may consider that Sajid Javid has taken an opportunity to assert a strong anti-terrorist stance in a high-profile case to win favour with the right-wing electorate that the Tory party increasingly seems to court. On a utilitarian level, he would be correct to see this as an opportunity for the so-called “global Britain” to assert its new post-Brexit identity on the world stage.
However, setting a dangerous precedent by skating on thin legal ice, further endangering a young mother who was radicalised within UK borders and failing to recognise the state’s duty to its own citizen is the polar opposite of the type of country Britain should be. The United Kingdom should be based on justice and the rule of law, not “trial by media” and political opportunism. Shamima Begum and her son are Britain’s responsibility, whether the public likes it or not.
Written by Ellen Pickett