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Shamima Begum's lawyers say Home Office created 'two-tier' citizenship

Powers used against London-born woman stranded in Syria have disproportionately affected British Muslims, court hears
Shamima Begum left the UK for Syria aged 15 with two school friends (Reuters)

The UK government has created a "two-tier" citizenship system by stripping Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, lawyers for the London-born woman stranded in a Syrian camp told a court hearing her appeal on Wednesday.

Begum left the UK aged 15 to travel to Syrian territory, then controlled by the Islamic State group in 2015, with two school friends from East London.

She was stripped of her citizenship in 2019 after being found in a camp in northeastern Syria for the families of suspected IS fighters and people fleeing IS territory as western-backed Kurdish-led forces defeated the militant group.

Begum has remained detained in Syria ever since. She gave birth to a child in the camp, but the baby died weeks later. Begum has said she had two other children in Syria who also died.

The British government argues that Begum is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents. Bangladeshi authorities have rejected claims that Begum is a Bangladeshi citizen.

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Begum is seeking to overturn the deprivation of her citizenship in a hearing at an immigration court in the latest stage of an ongoing legal battle that has already seen details of her case considered in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Dan Squires, representing Begum, now 23, said the Home Office had failed to consider the "wider ramifications" that citizenship revocation orders would have on British Muslims and other ethnic groups in Britain.

"This decision disproportionately affect different groups which is not justifiable," Squires told the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which considers appeals in citizenship-stripping cases.

"And following the decision, prominent Muslim and BAME voices spoke out against this move stating that British Muslims will now think that their citizenship is conditional and that they are not as British as other people." 

Begum's legal team noted in written submissions to the court that citizenship deprivation in Britain has "disproportionately applied to British Muslims and/or those of particular ethnic minority backgrounds”. 

"The suggestion that there was no risk that deprivation powers were being disproportionately applied to British Muslims and/or those of particular ethnic minority backgrounds, and so "[no] reason to believe" the Secretary of State for the Home Department (SSHD)'s practice raised equality issues is, with respect, hopeless,” they said.

"If this is the conclusion that the SSHD reached, it is in itself a breach of the Public Sector Equality Duty."

Begum's solicitor, Gareth Pierce, added in a witness submission that: "almost all [citizenship-stripping cases] involve British Muslims and "the significant majority are of South Asian, Middle Eastern or African descent".

Depriving someone of citizenship is illegal in international law unless they hold citizenship of another country.

The UK government argues that all those it has stripped of citizenship in recent years – many in relation to travel to Syria during the country’s civil war - are dual nationals or have an entitlement to another citizenship.

The UK and citizenship-stripping powers

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The UK has been described by researchers as a “global leader in using citizenship deprivation as a counterterrorism measure”.

Historic citizenship-stripping powers targeted at naturalised citizens on disloyalty grounds had largely fallen into disuse prior to 2002, when the government introduced new measures in an attempt to revoke the citizenship of Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born cleric subsequently convicted of terrorism in the US.

The 2002 legislation allowed for British-born nationals as well as naturalised citizens to lose their nationality rights. Successive governments gradually broadened the scope of the powers so that home secretaries can now deprive anyone of citizenship if they are satisfied that doing so is “conducive to the public good” and would not leave an individual stateless.

No criminal conviction is required. Letters often state that individuals have been assessed as presenting “a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom”.

The government’s use of the powers surged to unprecedented levels in response to the perceived threat posed by British nationals returning from Syria.

Between 2010 and 2015, 33 people were stripped of their citizenship, according to Home Office figures. In 2016, 14 people were deprived, and in 2017 the number jumped to 104.

In 2018, the figure was 21, and in in 2019 - when Shamima Begum was among those targeted - it was 27. It then dropped to ten in 2020 and eight in 2021.

Some subjects of citizenship-stripping orders argue that they have been left effectively stateless, because the government bases its assessment that they are dual nationals on a right of citizenship to a parent’s country of birth, even if they have never taken up that citizenship or even visited the country.

In some cases the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which rules on citizenship cases, has agreed: it has ruled in favour of British nationals of Bangladeshi descent on the grounds that Bangladesh does not consider them citizens if they have not claimed Bangladeshi nationality before the age of 21.  

Human rights organisations and lawyers have compared the powers to “medieval exile and banishment”. Critics also point out that the powers create a two-tier system in which only those deemed to be dual nationals are at risk of losing their British citizenship; a measure that discriminates against naturalised citizens, immigrants and their children.

On Tuesday, Begum's lawyers told the court that the government, her school, and the police had failed to protect her by not preventing her from travelling to Syria. 

"We say there were missed opportunities in the school that had failed to properly protect Ms Begum, and the police, and the Secretary of State making a decision to deprive her nationality must take those failures into account," said Samantha Knight.

Written submissions also mentioned that police had spoken to Shamima Begum and her friends because of their link to a friend called Sharmeena Begum, who had travelled to Syria months before them. 

Officers gave a letter to Shamima Begum and other girls at the school intended for their parents which warned them about Sharmeena Begum’s departure. But Shamima Begum and her friends did not pass the letter on to their parents. 

Earlier this week, an MI5 agent known as Witness E addressed the court from behind a curtain and said the security services did not consider human trafficking in its assessment of Begum.

He said: “In my mind, it is not conceivable that an intelligent and articulate 15-year-old could not know what ISIS was doing, so in some respects, yes I do believe she would have known what she was doing and had agency in doing so.” 

The case continues on Thursday, with lawyers from the Home Office set to present their arguments against Begum.

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