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Sunday 24 February 2019

thinkin

Going Home

Making a teenage jihadi bride and her baby stateless dimishes us all

Shamima Begum was a girl of 15 when she ran away from her family in Bethnal Green, East London, to join Isis in Syria. She pledged her future to a heartless cult that revels in murder and trades in hatred. Now Isis is all but defeated, she wants to come home and asks for sympathy from Britain. It’s a test of British values. A test that the British government has failed: the response of Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has been craven, nasty and divisive.

Over the course of the past week, we held two ThinkIns that informed this view. Last Monday – at a ThinkIn on “What now for Shamima Begum?” – we heard from a number of people involved: the Begum family’s lawyer, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, a Tower Hamlets councillor, a London imam, a legal expert on statelessness, a former adviser to the Home Secretary and parents who know what it’s like to have teenage children. At a ThinkIn on Wednesday, there were roughly 100 people in the newsroom to consider “What does it mean to be British now?”.

Two points of useful context:

  • Returnees: Richard Barrett, the former director of global counter-terrorism at MI6, pointed out that roughly 400 people who went to join Isis in Syria and Iraq have returned to the UK. So far, he said, none of the returnees has posed a terrorist threat.

  • Deprivation orders: Bronwen Manby, a leading authority on statelessness, noted that international law does not allow a government to render a person stateless. The Home Secretary can “deprive” a dangerous person of their citizenship only if they have citizenship of another country.

The story, in brief: Shamima Begum left London in 2015 with two friends. She travelled first to Turkey and then overland to join Isis in Syria. She was promptly married to a Dutchman, a jihadi convert. They had two children, both of whom died before they reached the age of three. As forces circled the last remaining Isis strongholds, Shamima Begum, nine months pregnant, fled to a refugee camp where she was found by The Times’ Anthony Loyd. She has since given a series of interviews in which, as well as saying she wants to come home, she has been confessional but unrepentant. Over the weekend, she gave birth to a baby boy, whom she named Jarrah, which roughly translates as “able warrior”. Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, issued a deprivation order, informing her family that he is stripping her of her citizenship on the basis that she is eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. She has never been to Bangladesh, which is where her parents are from. Bangladesh has made clear that it will not issue her citizenship. She and her son remain in a refugee camp.

So, why craven? Javid’s office recently denied that he has taken to referring to himself as “The Saj”. In this case, Javid’s ego is undeniably at work. A leadership race is already under way to succeed Theresa May and Javid is well out of the blocks. The decision to reinterpret the laws to cut Shamima Begum loose is a dog whistle to the tabloid press and the Conservative grassroots that don’t decide elections but do choose the next party leader. He is a canny enough politician to know that he has launched a legal process he may well lose, that he has drawn attention to the secretive business of deprivation orders, that he’s chosen populism over principle, but calculated that the pose he’s struck will keep him on the front pages and on the right side of the culture wars. Personal ambition is clouding his judgement.

Why nasty? Even if you have no truck with the idea that Shamima Begum was groomed, if you think that she gave succour to the enemy, if you believe others should be deterred from such bloody adventurism, Begum’s week-old baby is an innocent. The Home Secretary’s decision left a mother and baby with two options: one was to seek the citizenship of a country she’s never visited and doesn’t know, the other to remain stranded in a refugee camp. It was vengeful but, arguably, understandable for the Government to turn its back on a 19-year-old mother who threw in her lot with Islamist fascists; it was absurdly callous to punish a baby. Where was Theresa May when her Home Secretary was reviving the “nasty party”?

Why divisive? Javid has leaned on the law governing deprivation orders. He chose to deprive Shamima Begum of her UK citizenship on the grounds that, although she is British born and bred and has no other citizenship, she may be eligible for a Bangladeshi passport. This was a departure from the established understanding of the law. Previously, deprivation orders could not be issued for people who have only British citizenship. You couldn’t make a person stateless. Javid appears to have created a new rule, one that establishes three categories of national identity: i) people who have British citizenship only; ii) people who are dual nationals, ie, who have more than one passport; iii) and people who are British citizens but are eligible for another passport elsewhere, ie, potential dual nationals.

Let’s consider this for a moment. Javid’s decision suggests the Government sees its responsibilities to the first group – British only, with no connection to another country – as different from the other two – dual nationals and British citizens with possible access to another passport. Javid, quite remarkably for the son of immigrants, has opened up the idea that the British government doesn’t see the children of immigrants as entirely British. His judgement suggests that they are British with an option to go elsewhere. Either intentionally or in a moment of idiocy, he has opened a new front in the old, discredited arguments over divided loyalties.

Bangladesh declared that Shamima Begum has no claim to citizenship of the country. The Home Office would have done well to check first. While the Prime Minister is consumed by Brexit negotiations, the Home Secretary now looks as though he has been interpreting international law on the fly.

Shamima Begum has been left stateless. She will, most likely, appeal. She is a British citizen and Britain will have to take responsibility for her. She also has to take responsibility for what she has done. When she returns home, she will have to face the question of her prosecution for membership of a terrorist organisation. She will need counselling and close monitoring for many years to come. In time, you have to hope she’ll be able to give her son a new life in a country with values to be proud of: compassion, human rights and the rule of law.

Further questions

What we’ve heard this week has left us wanting to learn more about:

  • The process of radicalisation: Tasnime Akunjee, the lawyer for Shamima Begum’s family, said that she had left next to no trace of the digital conversations she’d had before leaving for Syria in 2015. But given that her treatment now rests on the fact that she was a child of 15 when she left and, it’s understood, groomed, then it’s critical to understand who turned Shamima Begum and how.
  • The other deprivation orders: Sajid Javid has said the British Government had used its “deprivation” power over 100 times. By international standards, this is high. Bronwen Manby pointed out that the Home Secretary is stripping 20-30 people a year of their British citizenship, but we don’t know who or why.
  • The details of deradicalisation: Puru Miah, a councillor in Tower Hamlets, began to sketch out how Prevent has caused resentment and sowed suspicion of the authorities. For all the controversy around deradicalisation programmes such as Prevent and Channel, we have little understanding of how they work in practice.