Update (5pm on 20th February): The government of Bangladesh says Begum does not have dual British-Bangladeshi citizenship and so will not be allowed into the country. "Ms Shamima Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen," Shahrial Alam, state minister of foreign affairs, told the Guardian on Wednesday afternoon. "She is a British citizen by birth and never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh … There is no question of her being allowed to enter into Bangladesh.” It is against international law to remove someone's citizenship if it would render them stateless, so it remains to be seen what will happen to Begum.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid also clarified Begum's newborn son's status on Wednesday, saying the baby would still be entitled to UK citizenship because he was born days before his mother's was removed.
This story was originally published on the morning of 20th February.
British schoolgirl Shamima Begum was just 15 when she fled her east London home to join Islamic State in Syria with two others in 2015, as one of the trio the media dubbed the "Bethnal Green girls". Now, Begum is back in the news all over again after an encounter and controversial interview with a journalist in Syria last week, in which she made clear her desire to return to the UK.
Speaking from a Syrian refugee camp, a heavily pregnant 19-year-old Begum told The Times that she wanted to return for her baby's sake ("I’m scared that this baby’s going to get sick in this camp. That’s why I really want to get back to Britain, because I know it will be taken care of, health-wise at least."). Begum, who is married to a 27-year-old Dutch national who arrived in Syria roughly five months before her, described a restrictive life in Syria, in which her husband didn't let her go out, and the experience of two of her children dying. Her wish to return to the UK has been a national talking point this week, and on Tuesday the government handed down its verdict.
The government's view?
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the government would revoke Begum's British citizenship, which the Home Office is entitled to do if it believes such a drastic step is in "the public good". Nations are forbidden under international law from making citizens stateless by revoking their only citizenship, however, the government believes Begum may hold dual citizenship as her mother is of Bangladeshi origin, and under the country's law Begum would be a Bangladeshi citizen too (although Begum doesn't have a Bangladeshi passport and has never been to the country).
Begum's case for coming back to the UK
Begum gave birth to a son on Sunday and has said she doesn't want to bring up her child in Syria, insisting that she was "not a threat" to the UK. "I'm a 19-year-old girl with a newborn baby," she told ITV News on Monday. "I don't have any weapons; I don't want to hurt anyone even if I did have weapons." Begum added: "I'm not going to go back and provoke people to go to ISIS or anything, if anything I'm going to encourage them not to go because it's not all as it seems in their videos."
However, while Begum has plead for forgiveness from the UK, she's shown no remorse for her actions. In her original Times interview, Begum said that seeing "a beheaded head in [a] bin" on the street "didn’t faze [her] at all." She said: "You see it and you think, 'oh, what has this man done to Muslim women and Muslim children and who were they fighting for?' And what are they fighting for, you know? They’re fighting against us, they want to kill us."
Begum's reaction to losing her UK citizenship
Reacting to the government's decision on Wednesday morning, Begum described the move to revoke her British citizenship as "kind of heart-breaking to read" and "hard to swallow", telling ITV News: "I'm a bit shocked... It's a bit unjust on me and my son." But she may try for citizenship via her Dutch husband, she added ("Maybe I can ask for citizenship in Holland. If he gets sent back to prison in Holland I can just wait for him while he is in prison.").
What happens next?
Legal experts have provided some much-needed clarity on Begum's situation going forward, but no one denies that it's extremely complicated. Some believe it could take years to resolve in the courts. Begum is entitled to challenge the Home Office's decision either by tribunal or judicial review, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday. To be successful, Begum would have to demonstrate that "the home secretary acted in an entirely disproportionate way in removing her nationality."
If Begum is indeed entitled to Bangladeshi nationality, as the government argues, then Lord Carlile said he believes it would be "a difficult challenge" for her to fight. Her son's situation is even more complex. Having been born before Begum's British citizenship was revoked, the baby would be considered British, and he may also be entitled to Dutch and Bangladeshi nationality, Lord Carlile added. Whatever happens, Begum could end up remaining where she is in Syria "for maybe two years at least".
Criticism of the government
Following days of national debate over whether Begum should be allowed to return to the UK, the government's decision has inevitably drawn both praise and criticism. Many argue that depriving someone like Begum of their British citizenship is wrong, with some arguing that it is "racist" because someone whose parents have British nationality wouldn't receive the same treatment, and that it effectively creates a two-tier citizenship system.
Dunno about you, but as a brown person I'm generally not in favour of the citizenship of other brown people being revoked. If you're a British patriot, you surely believe that our fine legal system can deal with any crimes anyone may have committed #ShamimaBegum— Sathnam Sanghera (@Sathnam) February 20, 2019
If I did a v horrible crime (which I have no intention of ever doing), I could theoretically be deported to Iraq-a country I have never been to, where I know nobody & don’t speak the language.— Hannah Al-Othman (@HannahAlOthman) February 19, 2019
Depriving nationality is racist. It suggests some of us are less British than others.
David Anderson makes an absolutely killer point. If he went to fight for Isis, this could not happen. But because Shamima Begum has Bangladeshi parents, it has. This creates two classes of Brits.— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) February 20, 2019
Others argue that the UK is effectively absolving itself of responsibility for Begum. "Stripping [people who fled to fight with Islamic State] of citizenship solves nothing," argued one Guardian reader. "We shouldn’t be dumping our home-grown terrorists on other countries. We should take responsibility for these people. Assess them. Rehabilitate them if possible. Prevent them from doing further harm if necessary."
Former Conservative Home Secretary Ken Clarke told BBC Radio 4 that turning people away would be a "great boost for jihadism" as the "hundreds of foreign jihadis stuck in camps in northern Syria" would be further radicalised. Green MP Caroline Lucas argued that Begum should be allowed to return and "put on trial and punished for her crimes in the UK."
Deeply worrying to see Home Sec playing fast & loose with international law.— Caroline Lucas (@CarolineLucas) February 20, 2019
Shamima Begum must be investigated, put on trial & punished for her crimes in UK.
By seeking to wash his hands of her, @sajidjavid undermines rule of law & human rights, and risks radicalising others. https://t.co/FgPPVBlMrI