Shamima Begum, the jihadi bride seeking to return to Britain, represents an awful problem for the UK – but isn’t she our problem and shouldn’t we deal with her under our own justice system? How, morally, can we strip her of UK citizenship and dump her on Bangladesh, which she has never visited? James Forsyth’s argument yesterday resonated, especially amongst Tories who agree with him that depriving her of a passport looks like taking the easy way out. I’ve been struck by how many ministers also accept that citizenship deprivation is a pretty bad option – but they think that, in the circumstances, the other options are worse. Here’s how they see it.
Bangladesh’s government says that she is not one of their citizens, leading some to argue that she can sue: that it’s illegal to strip her of her British passport because no one can be made stateless. Government lawyers are relaxed about this. They have many borderline cases but don’t think this is one of them. Yes, Begun does not have a Bangladesh passport – but she’d automatically qualify for one because she is under 21 and both of her parents are from there. Her lawyers don’t dispute this. Under UK law, the government can strip British citizenship from anyone who is eligible for dual nationality. Which she is: not just due to Bangladeshi law, but under Bangladesh’s constitution.
But if she did come back to the UK, would she face justice? This — for Theresa May — is the embarrassing part. There is a pretty low chance of her being jailed for more than a few months. This is because, when Mrs May was Home Secretary, she didn’t pass the laws that would allow successful prosecution of ISIS returnees. This was a brand new situation, a legal quagmire, so mistakes were always going to be made. But we’re seeing the result of those mistakes now.
The laws are so weak (requiring evidence of wrongdoing in a lawless arena) that only 40 of the 400 jihadi fighters who have returned to the UK have been successfully prosecuted. The estimated 400 who have not returned – ISIS hardliners holding on to the very end – might well think: come back to Britain and there’s a 90pc chance of settling down to life as normal. Or perhaps opening a new front in jihad at home. Shamima Begum’s striking lack of repentance does raise questions as to how how return might be conducive to the public good. Public opinion is strongly against her return.
If Begum did come back and was at large, officials fear that she would become a lightening rod for extremists on both sides: jihadis who would venerate her, and EDL types who would use her case to rally support. She would not spend long behind bars. Living in ISIS-land in itself ought to have been enough of an offence to merit prosecution, but that law was only passed a few weeks ago. It doesn’t apply retrospectively.
So without laws to prosecute returning jihadis, officials have ended up stripping them of their UK passports – thinking this is the best way of keeping the rest of us safe. And they have been doing so for years now May made sure that Amber Rudd kept doing it: over 100 citizenships were taken away from Isis returnees in 2017 alone. But at that point, no one cared much about them and no one made a fuss (Corbyn included). It’s only the case of the teenage Shamima Begum which has focused the country’s attention, with many people now asking for the first time if removal of citizenship should be a tool at governments disposal. Jeremy Corbyn thinks it shouldn’t.
So the choice facing Sajid Javid was to have an unreformed Isis follower back in Britain, knowing she’d likely be at liberty within a few months. Or to take the crude, shocking step of depriving this brainwashed teenage mother of her British citizenship – but decide that it’s his job to keep people safe, so such tough decisions have to be made. It’s a grim dilemma. But as the last of the British Isis fighters start to return, it’s a dilemma we’d best get used to.