The Shamima Begum Controversy

By Alvira Ashraf

In 2015, UK-born Shamima Begum, of Bangladeshi heritage, left the UK at the age of 15 to join the Islamic State (IS) with two school-friends. Since having her citizenship deprived by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, Begum’s case, one of popular discussion and notoriety in 2019, is deeply concerned with human rights, and the distinction between the rights of an individual and the protection of a state. Though the morality of leaving Begum effectively stateless is easily criticised, it is my belief that the decision to exclude her from British society was entirely justifiable, and favourable, for the UK.

In the Summer of 2020, it was announced that the case would be seen in the Supreme Court, the highest court of the UK. The update that the Supreme Court unanimously sided with the British government on this case, declaring the citizenship deprivation lawful, and agreeing that the decision was, as Javid claimed, “conducive to the public good”. Moreover, the Court ruled that Begum would not be allowed to return to the UK to pursue her case, a decision that she felt restricted her access to a fair trial.

On Friday 26th of February 2021, Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court, presented the ruling on Begum’s appeal against the decision to revoke her citizenship, and the government’s opposing appeal that followed. In this he explained that the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) held that the deprivation of Begum’s citizenship was lawful. The Court of Appeal held that Begum must be granted entrance to the UK in order to have a fair, effective hearing against the deprivation decision. The Home Secretary, however, appealed against this.

Lord Reed announced multiple errors made by the Court of Appeal that the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, identified. Firstly, the appeal against the decision of the Home Secretary to refuse a person entrance to the UK “can only be brought on the grounds that the decision was unlawful under the Human Rights Act”, and so this appeal “should have been dismissed” as it did not meet this condition. Secondly, The Court of Appeal’s own assessment of requirements of national security were favoured over that of the Home Secretary “despite the absence of any relevant evidence for it or any relevant findings of fact from the court below”. Thirdly, in a case contesting an individual’s right to a fair trial and national security, the Court of Appeal was mistaken in believing “the right to a fair hearing must prevail”. In the vitality of public safety, an appropriate response in the case should have been to postpone the hearing “until Ms Begum was able to play an effective part in it without public safety being compromised”. Lastly, “the Court of Appeal mistakenly treated the Home Secretary’s human rights policy as if it was a rule of law” rather than guidance to be used at the Court’s own discretion.

Begum’s status was a target of destruction for newspapers and other forms of media covering the case. She endured unsympathetic, demonising headlines, such as The Metro’s “Jihadi Bride Wants Baby on the NHS”, The Sun’s “No Remorse, No regrets, No Entry” and The Daily Express’s especially provocative “How Could She Say Arena Bombing Was Justified?”

In an interview in 2019, Begum excused herself from guilt by claiming that her “sitting at home” like a “housewife” -- as opposed to being an active perpetrator of violence and crime -- was not directly harmful, suggesting that her role as a housewife was forgivable because she was not the agent of terrorism, but a bystander.

Begum and her husband have since spoken regretfully in interviews about their behaviour, Yago claiming his membership of the terrorist group was “something that's not acceptable”, and Begum stating that despite her young age, she “did have the mentality to make [her] own decisions”, and answering the question of what she now wanted with “forgiveness, really, from the UK”.

Undoubtedly, many of us have seen a satirical post on social media or engaged in a humorous conversation about Begum’s poor decision-making skills; it is indeed a precarious situation that has divided the nation. Whilst there is a case to be made that a fifteen year old girl was groomed and coerced into a situation she was incapable of fully comprehending at the time, and that we owe it to her to be sympathetic of her unfortunate circumstances, the more salient issue seems to be that of national security. Some interpret that regardless of whether or not this was her fault, she is now an indoctrinated Islamic radical with an ideology poisonous to UK society. Begum’s supposed sincerity, though believable, might also be an attempt at masking underlying malevolent intentions. Would it then be justifiable to allow her back into a country she has been conditioned to hate, with the added benefits of legal aid?

It remains an unresolved issue that Begum is, with the deprivation of her British citizenship, exposed to the risk of mistreatment in the Syrian refugee camps in which she currently resides. There, Begum has little contact with legal representatives. Ultimately, the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed Begum’s appeal against the deprivation of her UK citizenship, her application for judicial review of this decision, and her application for judicial review of SIACs decision that she should not be allowed to re-enter the UK. These decisions were final, and in the interest of national security and public safety, priorities that outweigh the importance of individual rights, especially when the individual in question made the conscious decision to betray the country that had previously provided for her.

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