If you have ever worked in public relations, you will have pondered abstractly about impossible jobs or clients from hell. Shamima Begum, the 24-year-old East Londoner whose underage holiday romance led her into Islamic State, is not someone you would welcome representing. Her name is linked reflexively with some of the most abhorrent ideology and criminality we can imagine, and her forays into the media have presented her as a weirdly blank, unrepentant solipsist.
Begum is back in the news because this week the Court of Appeal has begun to hear an application from her lawyers to overturn the decision in 2019 of the then-home secretary, Sajid Javid, to deprive her of her British citizenship. She was 19 years old at the time, discovered in the al-Hawl refugee camp in northern Syria, her three children already dead. Javid said that she would never be allowed to return to the UK, a stance reiterated by his successor, Dame Priti Patel, citing ‘security and intelligence’.
We are now at a nexus of legal and moral arguments. Did the government act properly in removing Begum’s citizenship, but more fundamentally, is it right? While I’m not a nationality obsessive, I do think a nation – any nation – has to have control over its citizenship. If anyone can join, then the nature of the group is undermined. We identify with each other because we want to, not because we have to. And yet, if I chase down every argument, I have to conclude that it would be wrong to deprive Begum of her citizenship.
The argument advanced by Javid and Patel is principally straightforward: there are some steps so extreme and so irrevocable, such as supporting and joining IS, that it is possible to forfeit your right to citizenship.
It is an easy emotion to share. Unlike some non-state enemies we have faced in the past, like the Provisional IRA, or the Cypriot EOKA, Islamic State simply does not share our view of the world. It is conceptually different, bloodily fanatical and leaves us no common ground on which to negotiate – it despises us existentially. Swimming against this tide, Begum has appealed against her loss of citizenship on a number of technical and moral grounds.
The law in this area is necessarily complex. Nationality legislation is a formalised expression of our feelings of identity, the way we conceptualise ourselves and others, and our relationships with them – it must be rigorous, consistent and fair, but also absorb the importance of emotion. One of the most serious sanctions the government has is to deprive someone of their citizenship, and this is sparing: the Home Office does not publish separate figures but the number is thought to be fewer than 500 people over the last 15 years (still instinctively alarmingly high).
Until 2018, the process was only applied to terrorists who poses a threat to the United Kingdom. Javid nudged the door open towards whether someone’s citizenship was ‘conducive to the public good’. There followed predictable slippery-slope arguments from Liberty, and of course Diane Abbott, then shadow home secretary, who saw the insidious hand of racism in Javid’s intentions.
What has been overlooked and elided is that we are talking about three distinct categories of British citizen: those who have been naturalised, those who hold dual citizenship and those who hold citizenship by birth. Although there has been confusion and counter-claim in recent years, Begum falls unequivocally into that final group. Although her parents were from Bangladesh, she was born in London, and her father’s indefinite leave to remain in the UK is enough under the British Nationality Act 1981 to have qualified her for citizenship by birth. For a while, the Home Office argued she was (or was eligible to be) a dual citizen of Bangladesh: that was only true under the country’s Citizenship Act of 1951 while she was under 21, and so ceased to be a consideration in August 2020.
Shamima Begum was born and raised in Britain. And this is the crucial point: in citizenship terms, we are all she has. The law makes it much easier to deprive a naturalised or dual citizen of their status, but to do so to someone who was born a citizen is extremely, and rightly, different. Making someone stateless, which is the logical outcome, is a step almost too huge to contemplate: it is hemmed in by a thicket of international agreements and widely regarded as a desperately serious matter. Ultimately, I come to the conclusion that it is just morally wrong.
Statehood implies a compact between nation and national. We enjoy the protections and privileges of our countries, and in return we owe them a kind of straightforward loyalty. This exchange is at its most finely balanced for those of us who were citizens from birth. It concerns a bond which, for better or worse, should almost never be broken.
Dual citizens are exercising ‘options’, so they must accept a degree of transactionality. Those to whom we have awarded citizenship equally have sought us out, and so should be aware of an intangible conditionality. But if we say that, in the case of someone as horrifying and inimical to us as Begum, we can exclude someone and render them homeless, we abdicate responsibility. This is no Guardianista bout of mea culpa: Britain did not make Begum what she is. But she is ours, for better or worse. Depriving her of citizenship involves us facing a dark, near-intractable problem of loyalties and culture, and deciding that it must be for someone else – anyone else – to deal with it because we choose not to. That is not a judgement any serious or self-respecting national should ever reach.
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