British citizenship rights attacked by racist government

British newspapers Shamima Begum headlines

In 2015, after apparently being groomed online, Tower Hamlets schoolgirls Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum left London on a plane to Turkey, with the aim of joining the organisation then referred to as the ‘Islamic State in  Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL). Four years on, Kadiza Sultana is dead and it is unclear what has happened to Amira Abase. Shamima Begum is in a UN refugee camp in eastern Syria, from where she has been attempting to get home to Britain; since travelling to Syria she has given birth to three children, all of whom have died, the latest in March 2019. Since Times journalist Anthony Loyd visited the camp in February 2019 and published a provocative interview with Shamima, she has been at the centre of a media and political controversy.  NICKI JAMESON reports.

Loyd’s interview was a set-up, with the questions clearly designed to whip up public hatred. The furore which followed was entirely predictable and Shamima’s picture rapidly appeared on the front page of almost every newspaper, usually accompanied by headlines describing her as an ‘unrepentant jihadi bride’. TV discussion shows were filled with talking heads opining on what should be her fate, while the internet was awash with uncontrolled vitriol in which the sexism and racism were undisguised. All this culminated in the announcement by Home Secretary Sajid Javid on 19 February that Shamima would be stripped of her British citizenship, and would therefore not be able to return even if she could make it out of the camp – it having already been made clear that no Foreign Office official was going to be sent to get her.  

The laws which Javid is relying on to do this are contained in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, a legacy of the Blair Labour government, and the Immigration Act 2014, which was brought in when Theresa May was Home Secretary and which contains the first planks of what is now universally referred to as the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.

Victim of hostility she certainly is, but Shamima Begum is not a migrant. She was born in Britain and has never held any other nationality. Her parents are of Bangladeshi origin but she has never set foot in Bangladesh; the Bangladeshi government has made it clear that she is not a citizen and has no right to enter the country. Despite stripping someone of nationality being contrary to long-held precepts of international law, if doing so renders them stateless, Javid is standing by his decision.

The terrible crimes of ISIL/IS/Daesh are undeniable and well-documented: from the attempted genocide of the Yazidi people to the destruction of ancient monuments at Palmyra. However, Shamima Begum has neither been convicted, nor so far even accused, of any actual criminal offence in any country, although if she does ever make it back to Britain it is likely she will face charges under anti-terrorism law.

Even had she been convicted of a crime, as a British citizen she would have been entitled to protection. Every year hundreds of Britons, who have been convicted abroad of every possible offence from drug-dealing to child molestation and multiple murder, successfully exercise their legal right to apply for repatriation to serve their terms in prisons in this country. The government website states that the benefits of such transfers are that these prisoners can ‘serve the rest of [their] sentence closer to [their] family and friends, be in an English-speaking country [and] be able to take courses and prepare for release in the UK’.

Whilst this may at first sight appear unconnected to the continuing Windrush scandal, the decision to remove Shamima Begum’s citizenship is a further declaration that for the racist British government some citizens are more equal than others, and that black and brown people whose families came to Britain from former colonies cannot rely on their status being the same as that of white citizens.

Nicki Jameson


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