Shamima Begum loses legal challenge to return to the UK after removal of British citizenship

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Shamima Begum was 15 when she travelled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (IS)

Shamima Begum has lost a legal challenge over the decision to deprive her of her British citizenship.

Ms Begum left her home in east London at the age of 15 to travel to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) in February 2015, along with two other schoolgirls.

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She dropped out of school at Bethnal Green with her friends Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana. The three girls then travelled from Gatwick Airport to Istanbul in Turkey and onto Syria on 17 February.

Shamima Begum was 15 when she travelled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (Photo: PA/ITV)Shamima Begum was 15 when she travelled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (Photo: PA/ITV)
Shamima Begum was 15 when she travelled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State (Photo: PA/ITV) | PA/ITV

Her British citizenship was revoked on national security grounds by then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid shortly after she was found, nine months pregnant, in a Syrian refugee camp.

Ms Begum, now 23, brought a challenge against the Home Office over this decision at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a specialist tribunal which hears challenges to decisions to remove someone’s British citizenship on national security grounds. Following a five-day hearing in November, the tribunal dismissed her challenge on Wednesday (22 February).

Giving the decision of the tribunal, Mr Justice Jay said that “reasonable people will differ” over the circumstances of Shamima Begum’s case. He said: “The commission has fully recognised the considerable force in the submissions advanced on behalf of Ms Begum that the Secretary of State’s conclusion, on expert advice, that Ms Begum travelled voluntarily to Syria is as stark as it is unsympathetic. Further, there is some merit in the argument that those advising the Secretary of State see this as a black and white issue, when many would say that there are shades of grey.”

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He continued: “If asked to evaluate all the circumstances of Ms Begum’s case, reasonable people with knowledge of all the relevant evidence will differ, in particular in relation to the issue of the extent to which her travel to Syria was voluntary and the weight to be given to that factor in the context of all others.

“Likewise, reasonable people will differ as to the threat she posed in February 2019 to the national security of the United Kingdom, and as to how that threat should be balanced against all countervailing considerations. However, under our constitutional settlement these sensitive issues are for the Secretary of State to evaluate and not for the commission.”

The Home Office said it is “pleased” the court has ruled against Shamima Begum. In a statement, a spokeswoman said: “We are pleased that the court has found in favour of the government’s position in this case. The government’s priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK and we will robustly defend any decision made in doing so.”

Shamima Begum lost the appeal challenging the removal of her British citizenship (Photo: PA)Shamima Begum lost the appeal challenging the removal of her British citizenship (Photo: PA)
Shamima Begum lost the appeal challenging the removal of her British citizenship (Photo: PA) | PA

During the Novemberhearing, Ms Begum’s lawyers said that the Home Office had a duty to investigate whether she was a victim of trafficking before stripping her of her British citizenship.

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The specialist tribunal heard that she was “recruited, transported, transferred, harboured and received in Syria for the purposes of ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘marriage’ to an adult male”.

At a previous hearing in February 2020, SIAC ruled that the decision to remove her British citizenship was lawful as Ms Begum was “a citizen of Bangladesh by descent” at the time of the decision.

However, her barristers said in November that the decision made Ms Begum “de facto stateless”, where she had no practical right to citizenship in Bangladesh, with Bangladeshi authorities stating they would not allow her into the country.

Barristers for the Home Office defended the government’s decision, arguing that people trafficked to Syria and brainwashed can still be threats to national security, adding that Ms Begum expressed no remorse when she initially emerged from IS-controlled territory.

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The Special Immigration Appeals Commission concluded on Wednesday there was a “credible suspicion” that Ms Begum was trafficked to Syria for “sexual exploitation” and that there were “arguable breaches of duty” by state bodies in allowing her to travel to the country.

But Mr Justice Jay said in a summary of the commission’s decision that the existence of this suspicion was “insufficient” for her to succeed on her arguments that the deprivation of her British citizenship failed to respect her human rights, adding that given she was now in Syria, the Home Secretary was not compelled to facilitate her return nor stopped from using “deprivation powers”.

The judge said: “The commission concluded that there was a credible suspicion that Ms Begum had been trafficked to Syria within the meaning of relevant international legal instruments. Essentially, and from the perspective of those responsible for the trafficking, the motive for bringing her to Syria was sexual exploitation to which, as a child, she could not give a valid consent.

“The commission also concluded that there were arguable breaches of duty on the part of various state bodies in permitting Ms Begum to leave the country as she did and eventually cross the border from Turkey into Syria.”

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He added: “In outline, given that Ms Begum is now in Syria, the state’s corollary investigative duty did not compel the Secretary of State to facilitate her return to the United Kingdom, nor did it prevent him from exercising his deprivation powers.

The judge said: “In short, the commission decided that a finding that Ms Begum has been trafficked does not operate as a form of limitation on the Secretary of State’s wide powers.”

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, described the ruling as a “very disappointing decision”. He said in a statement: “The Home Secretary shouldn’t be in the business of exiling British citizens by stripping them of their citizenship.

“The power to banish a citizen like this simply shouldn’t exist in the modern world, not least when we’re talking about a person who was seriously exploited as a child. Shamima Begum had lived all her life in the UK right up to the point she was lured to Syria as an impressionable 15-year-old.

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“Isis (so-called Islamic State) have been responsible for appalling crimes in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, but that doesn’t change that Shamima Begum is British and was groomed and trafficked to Syria.

“Along with thousands of others, including large numbers of women and children, this young British woman is now trapped in a dangerous refugee camp in a war-torn country and left largely at the mercy of gangs and armed groups.

“Just as other nations have done, the UK should be helping any of its citizens stranded in Syria – including by assisting in their safe return to the UK, whether or not that means facing possible criminal investigation or prosecution.”

Commenting on the ecision, John Cahill, Partner at the Immigration Advice Service, said: “The case has been a divisive and emotional one, but this was a very complex matter and was not as straightforward as some may have portrayed it, raising as it did questions about the actions of a then 15-year-old British-born child, issues of trafficking, radicalisation, national security, and where legal responsibility for prosecution lies.

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“Whilst this decision will be seen as a victory for the Home Secretary and her government, the deprivation of British citizenship of a British-born British citizen is likely to add to the feeling of vulnerability and precariousness of many British nationals who obtained their citizenship in similar fashions.”

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