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Stripping Shamima Begum of her citizenship “shames ministers who would rather bully a child victim of trafficking than acknowledge the UK’s responsibilities.”

This op-ed by Reprieve’s joint executive director Maya Foa appeared in iNews on 23/02/2024

Once again, a British court has acknowledged that Shamima Begum is likely a child trafficking victim. And once again, a panel of senior judges has concluded that this offers her no protection. If the Home Secretary decides to strip a trafficking victim’s UK citizenship, with a cursory nod to the ‘public good,’ that is their call and within the law.

Today’s Court of Appeal judgement reflects a regime in which the extreme power to deprive Britons of all their legal rights is held by a single person. This power may only be used against people with a theoretical claim to a second nationality. In practice, it has been targeted almost exclusively against Muslims with brown skin. Prior to this Conservative government, it was barely used at all: just five times from 1973 to 2009. Since then, it has been used more than 200 times.

Shamima Begum was stripped of her citizenship by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid in February 2019. At 19 years old, she had been subjected to years of exploitation and abuse, was grieving the loss of two children and heavily pregnant with a third.

The ‘Bethnal Green Girls’ were groomed by ISIS traffickers while they revised for mock GCSEs, left Britain following their instructions and were met in Turkey by a member of ISIS secretly working for Canadian intelligence. Their school, Tower Hamlets Council and the Metropolitan Police all missed opportunities to stop them. Shamima was 15 years old.

The Court of Appeal found that Mr Javid “was aware of the circumstances of her departure to Syria, and the likelihood that she was a child victim of others who wished to exploit her for sexual or extremist reasons“. Home Office advice at the time was that “individuals who have been radicalised as minors and travelled to Syria or Iraq… are first and foremost victims.”

The judges also acknowledged that he knew Ms Begum “had nowhere else to go”- as Bangladesh, the country of her theoretical second citizenship, had made clear she was not welcome. Mr Javid stripped her of her rights anyway, telling journalists that this vulnerable young woman, by now mourning a third child, was too great a threat to national security to be allowed back into Britain.

It is hard to disagree with the judges of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, who reasoned that “political rather than national security factors drove the outcome”.

Britain is the only country in the G20 to strip citizenship in bulk. Only Bahrain and Nicaragua have deprived more people of their rights on ‘public good’ grounds since the turn of the millennium. Last February, Nicaragua’s authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega stripped 300 people of citizenship, calling them “traitors to the homeland” – the same ‘charge’ Shamima Begum has been tried and convicted on in the comments section of the Daily Mail. This is the company the UK now keeps on this issue.

The UK is also almost alone in its refusal to repatriate its nationals from NES. The US brought its people home years ago. France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia are all repatriating families. In June 2023, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken pointedly called on states to step up these efforts, warning of the security risks posed by unstable and dangerous NES detention facilities.

The Government’s blanket citizenship-stripping policy is bad for security, an abdication of responsibility and an affront to the rule of law. It only ever made sense as a populist political move, pandering to racism and Islamophobia. In this set-up, Shamima Begum is a target on a rifle range, a vector for Piers Morgan’s endless outrage, the woman phone-in callers love to hate.

The whole episode shames ministers who would rather bully a child victim of trafficking than acknowledge the UK’s responsibilities. Rather than demonise Shamima Begum, the government should reckon with the institutional failures that enabled ISIS to traffic vulnerable British women and girls.

Ms Begum’s lawyers are certain to appeal to the Supreme Court. Many months will pass until those arguments are heard and adjudicated. Meanwhile, around 25 British families remain indefinitely and unlawfully detained in prisons in NES because their government refuses to bring them home. British children are growing up behind barbed wire in the shadow of men with guns.

What the courts have recognised today is that this is a political problem, and the government holds the key to solving it. If ministers think Shamima Begum has committed a crime, she should be prosecuted in a British court. Citizenship stripping is not the answer.