Why has Sajid Javid announced that he is revoking the citizenship of Shamima Begum? The 19 year old, who travelled as a teenager to join the Islamic State in Syria, has asked for ‘forgiveness’ from the UK, but last night the Home Secretary responded by saying he would be removing her status as a British citizen. He can do this, he argues, because she has a right to Bangladeshi citizenship, which means the government will not be rendering her stateless.
A fair few people have suggested that this is about Javid’s own ambitions in the Conservative party, as this move will likely appeal to the Tory grassroots. It has already earned praise from key newspapers like the Sun. But it’s not just about the politics of this. Ministers in the Home Office are also very concerned about providing a deterrent effect for other would-be jihadis. Begum’s departure from the UK when she was just 15 made international news, as did the Times’ discovery of her in a camp in northern Syria last week. This means that this is not like many of the other cases of returning alleged jihadis, who have already come back to the UK without much fanfare at all. I interviewed one such woman – a British citizen – in Turkey in 2017, and her return to this country attracted no attention at all. The view held privately in government about such suspects who do not have enough evidence against them to secure a conviction is that it is not only impossible to keep track of all of them, but also that many of them are highly likely to respond well to rehabilitation, thus never posing a threat to wider society.
By contrast, ministers know that what happens to Begum may have a profound effect upon other impressionable young people. They hope that by showing that, as Security Minister Ben Wallace said last week, ‘actions have consequences’, they can deter others from believing that they can join a proscribed organisation and come back home if it doesn’t work out. So while Begum wouldn’t have seen Britain offering consular help to her in the camp where she is currently living, she might not have faced the same threats to her citizenship as she is seeing now. But actions can have consequences within our own justice system. It is perfectly conceivable that Begum, who was well over the age of criminal responsibility when she left Britain to join Islamic State, could still be held up by ministers as an example of what happens to people who leave to join a proscribed group by facing trial. As James argued yesterday, this would also uphold our values as a country far better than the government washing its hands of a woman who was, after all, radicalised in this country.