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British citizens are being deprived of their nationality because of racism, not terrorism

The case of a British aid worker in Syria who has had his citizenship revoked reinforces the growing belief that racism, and not national security, is driving such decisions
In Syria, Tauqir Sharif is 'known for his humanitarian beliefs and work' (Facebook)

It came as a surprise when, in 2017, my friend, Tauqir Sharif, a British aid worker based in the Atmeh camp in northern Syria, told me he’d received notification that his British nationality would be revoked.

I first met Tauqir - or Tox as he is widely known - in 2012, when we travelled on an aid convoy together across Europe into Turkey to help Syrians fleeing the conflict. As we spoke, I learned about his journey on the Viva Palestina convoy to Palestine in 2009, and his trip to help survivors of the Pakistan floods in 2010. 

He also told me about his time on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship that sailed as part of a flotilla attempting to bring relief to Palestinians in Gaza in 2010, and how a group of unarmed Turks were killed by Israeli soldiers after they boarded the ship. 

A true humanitarian

In Syria, Tox was known for his humanitarian beliefs and work. He toured the camps for people displaced by the war and quickly established a working system of finding out what was needed, ensuring that aid was sent from Britain through convoys or containers, or bought from neighbouring Turkey. He was relentless and deeply compassionate. 

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Despite the scale of the growing conflict - we’d often attend hospitals and funerals on a daily basis - Tox greeted everyone with his infectious smile. Although he’s fluent now, it was his attempts to translate words into Arabic through his East London accent, coupled with his smile, that ingratiated him with locals.

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I returned from Syria after about six months, but Tox remained. His British wife joined him, and they have since been broadcasting news about their projects online. This husband-and-wife team have become household names among Britain’s Muslim community and beyond.

Tox appeared on mainstream British news distributing aid under bombs, speaking about the effects of chlorine gas attacks, working alongside the White Helmets as they pulled bodies out of the rubble, and dealing with the influx of refugees after the fall of Aleppo.

Because of the work of people like Tox, British-built hospitals, clinics, aid centres, schools, houses and orphanages run by British volunteers, doctors and teachers - serviced by British ambulances, fire engines and refuse trucks - remain a lifeline to Syrians in the Idlib region.

Blackmailed by IS

So why, then, did the government decide to revoke Tox’s nationality? Perhaps they know something the people in Syria don’t.

Tox told British media recently that he carried a weapon in the early days of his time in Syria, with the intention of using it only to defend himself and his aid convoys in hostile territory. As time went on, that hostility ranged from armed robbers to the Assad regime and the Islamic State (IS).

Tox has been an opponent and outspoken critic of IS from the start

A few months before he learned that his nationality was to be revoked, Tox told me that he’d received messages from members of IS demanding he hand over £50,000 ($65,700), or they would hand over photos of him holding a gun to the British. Tox assumed they were referring to the media because of his high profile. He was being blackmailed by the “caliphate”.

Tox refused every demand, even as it lowered, incrementally, to £10,000. Eventually, the messages stopped - but it didn't end there.

Tox has been an opponent and outspoken critic of IS from the start. This isn’t because of some attempt to ingratiate himself with the West, but because he knows many people who have been killed by them.

Once, he discovered a bomb attached to his car; another time, a bomb exploded in a building where he had been due to be holding a karate class for children. Fortunately he was running late and nobody was killed.

That’s one reason why he now has security for both himself and the aid he delivers, instead of relying on arming himself. 

‘Guilty by association’

Tox’s citizenship revocation was made under “closed evidence” rules, meaning he doesn’t know what he’s actually accused of. He’s appealed the decision, but even his lawyers don’t know exactly why he’s no longer a British citizen.

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.

All they can do is assume, and one hypothesis is that evidence - including the aforementioned photos - was provided by IS blackmailers to British security services, and the government acted upon it.

If true, such a revelation would be devastating. But because of the secret way in which citizenship revocation appeals are handled, there is no way of knowing.  

The Home Office letter Tox received simply states that “it is assessed that you are a British/Pakistani dual national who has travelled to Syria and is aligned to an AQ (al-Qaeda) aligned group”.

As Tox wrote in a recent tweet: “What does that even mean? Guilty by association with a degree of separation?”

Tox posted updates about his work in Syria online (Facebook)
Tox posted updates about his work in Syria online (Facebook)

Considering almost every one of the hundreds of armed groups operating in Syria have been accused either by the Syrian government, Russians, Americans, Iranians or British of being “al-Qaeda affiliates”, the allegation is contentious at best.

Currently, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the group in control of Idlib where Tox often operates, is the latest incarnation, after a series of efforts by the former Jabhat al-Nusra to distance itself from al-Qaeda.

More concerning for the British government in making these assessments is consistency. Britain openly supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with non-lethal aid until late 2013, at a time when the FSA fought alongside and shared resources with Nusra.

The former’s leader described the latter as “brothers” who were “proficient in fighting” and had “treated the people very nicely”.

Failed by the system

By this association, Britain is far more guilty of alignment with al-Qaeda than Tauqir Sharif is. But unlike many non-Muslim, white, British foreign fighters, Tox maintains he’s never joined any armed group.

A few weeks ago, I appeared on Good Morning Britain as part of a discussion around the case of Shamima Begum, the London teenager who travelled to IS-controlled Syria, and whether she should return to the UK. My co-panelists included journalist and former Taliban captive Yvonne Ridley, former Metropolitan police chief Dal Babu, and former city banker Macer Gifford, who joined a Syrian Kurdish militia to fight against IS.

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In the discussion, Babu, Ridley and I argued that Begum and her friends had been groomed by IS and failed by police, their school and a Prevent programme that is supposedly designed to stop such things from happening. However, we all felt that Begum should return to home because she was British - at least she was that morning. 

Days later, Home Secretary Sajid Javid wrote to Begum’s family in the UK, stating that her British nationality had been revoked. 

On Good Morning Britain, Gifford said that Begum shouldn’t be allowed to return to the UK because she was ideologically motivated to join IS and was a "very dangerous woman".

I found this position strange, considering that he joined the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is considered a terrorist organisation by NATO ally Turkey and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is proscribed as a terrorist group in Turkey, the EU and the US.

Gifford has openly argued to delist the PKK, while his British co-fighters have described Turkish forces as “terrorists”.

British YPG fighters

Last year, former British soldier Joe Robinson was convicted for membership of the YPG and sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison in Turkey. Last December, however, he managed to flee pending an appeal while on bail, and returned to Britain.

Several other Britons not only joined the YPG, but took part in military operations against Turkish forces last year in the former Kurdish enclave of Afrin, Syria. At least eight are known to have been killed. The Turks have been battling their own Kurdish insurgency for decades, and intervened in Syria to both deplete IS and prevent the expansion of YPG forces as part of operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch.

They just want people to see that race - and not risk - is what determined their fate

The YPG has been accused of receiving support and weapons from the Assad regime while the latter was engaged in committing massacres against the Syrian opposition.

Amnesty International in 2015 accused YPG forces of committing “war crimes” - especially the destruction of homes and forced displacement - against Turkmen, Arabs and other Kurds in Syria. Last year, Amnesty also accused Turkish-backed rebels of "widespread human rights violations" in Syrian territory under Turkish control.

Despite at least one of the British YPG fighters being of Chinese origin, there is no suggestion that he will be stripped of his nationality. As for those who are ethnically white, few have faced prosecution, let alone citizenship deprivation.

Xenophobia and racism

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”.

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Thus far, the discussion around nationality has centred on the Begum case, as though it had set a “precedent”. The truth is that since the process of nationality revocation increased during Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary, there have been more than 100 cases.

That trend continued after she became prime minister. Most people now see this as a two-tier system driven by Brexit Britain - where Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism drive the conversation.

Those who lost their nationality did so under the premise that they would technically not be left stateless, as they have recourse to the nationality of their parents or grandparents - not because they were guilty of terrorism. 

There are other cases, such as Tox’s, where the details have yet to surface. Many have chosen to remain silent for various reasons. Despite this open violation of their basic rights, many, like him, are not “begging” to come back. They just want people to see that race - and not risk - is what determined their fate.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Moazzam Begg is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, author of Enemy Combatant and outreach director for UK-based campaigning organisation CAGE. Follow him on twitter: @Moazzam_Begg
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