Don’t judge Shamima Begum today: judge the cruel ministers who still won’t take responsibility for her
The government peddles a caricature so we don’t see her for what she is: a child trafficking victim groomed in the UK
In the wake of today’s special immigration appeals commission judgment about Shamima Begum’s status, it is important to be clear about what has been decided. The ruling basically says that being a child trafficking victim doesn’t mean the home secretary cannot strip you of citizenship.
Begum was not on trial today, despite what the radio phone-ins and tabloid headlines would have you think. At issue was whether the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, acted lawfully in depriving her of citizenship, leaving her effectively stateless. Despite finding that she was probably groomed and trafficked by Islamic State (IS) at the age of 15, the commission reluctantly found that it could not grant her appeal.
“Many right-thinking people will strongly take issue with the assessment of those advising the secretary of state,” the judgment observed, adding that “political rather than national security factors drove the outcome.”
The judges accepted that “as a matter of basic common sense” Begum was groomed in the UK; that it was not plausible that she could have organised her travel to Syria by herself; that there is credible suspicion she was trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation; and that UK institutions are likely to have failed in their duty to protect her.
That they nonetheless concluded that Javid did not need to take these factors into consideration when taking away her citizenship should chill us all, particularly the 6 million Brits with a claim to dual nationality who could be similarly stripped of a status they thought was secure.
There are 25 or so British families currently unlawfully detained without trial in north-east Syria. Most of the adults have been stripped of citizenship. Reprieve’s research has shown that the majority of the women were trafficked by IS, some when they were children. The government’s policy, if we can call it that, is to banish them.
This cruel approach is unique to Britain among G20 countries. Since 2000, only the autocratic Gulf monarchy of Bahrain has deprived more people of what Hannah Arendt called “the right to have rights”. In the same time span, the UK has used this extreme power 10 times as often as France or the Netherlands.
Britain is also alone among its allies in refusing to repatriate its nationals from north-east Syria. France and Spain have already repatriated families this year, Canada and Australia also
US state department officials in the Trump and Biden administrations have become “extraordinarily frustrated with Britain’s failure” to repatriate its nationals. There is a growing consensus that the UK’s refusal to repatriate is a failed policy, bad for national and global security.
Rather than acknowledge this, or even engage with the debate, the government would rather focus on a caricature of Begum. Ministers ask us to reconcile two contradictory positions: that evidence presented by the intelligence agencies to the government shows she is a national security threat, but that there is insufficient evidence to try her on terrorism charges in a British court. This is bunk, a political posture in the absence of a policy.
The fact is, it suits a great many people to make this all about Shamima Begum, a girl who was targeted by IS recruiters while she revised for her mock GCSEs, groomed online over a period of months into travelling to Turkey, then transported across the border by an IS trafficker who we now understand may have been working for Canada’s intelligence services.
As the judges observed: “Whatever the extent of her ideological commitment before she left in February 2015, Ms Begum could not have had any inkling of how much personal suffering she was destined to endure.” Last year, a cross-party group of MPs and peers concluded that IS was able to traffic vulnerable British women and girls owing to systematic failings within UK institutions. Today the commission agreed.
Rather than judge Shamima Begum – something British courts are eminently capable of doing if one day the Crown Prosecution Service decides there is a case to answer – we should judge the government’s failure to take responsibility. Each time one of our allies brings its nationals home, it shows up the UK government’s policy for what it really is: a political posture. It is more concerned with headlines than British lives.
Foa, M. (2023, February 22). Don’t judge Shamima Begum today: judge the cruel ministers who still won’t take responsibility for her. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/22/shamima-begum-child-trafficking-uk