The immigration camp guard opened the door, ushered me into the interview cell, then stepped out and locked the door behind her.
Sitting at one end of a low, wooden desk was a short, heavy-set man with a half-grown beard, dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a baggy sweatshirt. As he stood up to greet me he gave me one of those warm ‘cheeky geezer’ smiles. “Ta for coming,” he said in his friendly Cockney accent.
I explained who I was and he told me I would have plenty to write about. “It’s been very bad – I can’t really believe what they have done to me. When your own country stabs you in the back. Who holds them accountable then?”
I asked him how he was coping in the detention camp – and the question seemed to deflate his London bravado: “Right now, I’m really scared, really scared.”
The man in the cell is known to the world only as N3. Nameless, stateless, he is sitting in a French cell, barred from getting back into Britain.
His story, and the way official perception of him shifted, mirrors the ever-refracting way the conflict in Syria has been viewed over time: civilian struggle against a brutal dictator; humanitarian disaster; factional battlefield; crucible of extremism.
N3 has been stripped of his British citizenship and faces deportation to Bangladesh, a country he left when he was three years old. “Look, I read an article a few days ago where the Bangladeshis said they execute people accused of terrorism,” he said. “But I’m British and I’m not a terrorist – I’m a charity worker.”
Outside the detention camp in Calais, just across the road, the hyper-market is doing a brisk trade with British shoppers stocking up for Christmas. Across the Channel, days away from a general election, the London Bridge attack has pushed terrorism, national security and homegrown extremism back into the spotlight.
For politicians, it is an issue that provides one of the most clarifying tests of their judgment and courage – how to get the balance right between protecting the lives of citizens and restricting the rights of individuals. Not all politicians can resist the most strident calls for locking people up or banishing individuals from Britain.
N3, the man sitting in a cell in France, was born in Bangladesh to British parents 35 years ago. He came to Britain in 1986, grew up in London, and after school, went on to college, but dropped out to take a job working for the council helping to mediate between violent gangs. “I could see it was a good job and I could see I could make a difference… I didn’t need to finish college to do it.”
He was soon married with three children, his youngest is now four years old.
In 2008, N3 was promoted to the council’s rapid response team which was deployed when gangs were fighting each other. He worked with the police and helped reduce crime and stabbings as well as the disbanding of gangs. He was later head-hunted for a role at a London court submitting reports for defendants involved in drug-related crime. But in 2010, when the council began to cut back services, N3 took redundancy.
He joined Human Aid, a British registered charity which provides humanitarian help all over the world, as a volunteer involved in fund-raising and clothes collection – all in the UK.
Three years later, Syria was in open conflict and aid agencies were called upon to help with the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Human Aid was looking for senior staff members to set up an emergency health care service in Turkey. N3 and another director were selected for the project.
At Heathrow Airport, just before he caught his flight to Istanbul, N3 was stopped by two British officials, a man and a woman, who he suspected were British intelligence. “They asked me where I am going, what am I doing, how much money I have. So obviously I provided them with the necessary paperwork and they said, ‘It’s a good job you’re doing, good luck’.”
With the apparent blessing of the British government, N3 and his colleague set off for Turkey to help the Syrian civilian population. N3 was in charge of liaising with the Turkish Red Crescent and other western aid agencies including International Rescue Committee, which is run by the former Labour Foreign Secretary, David Miliband.
He focused his work on coordinating a system for the emergency medical care of victims of the bombings. “I worked with nine Syrian hospitals around Hamma so that they could provide a kind of 999 service for civilians who were hit by the bombs. We made sure that there were paramedics in ambulances patrolling the area – all in radio contact with the hospitals. You could say we were doing what the White Helmets did, but before they were doing it.”
He also helped set up a sponsored project for Syrian orphans of the war. “The key to all this is education and I know, from my time working in London, if you give these children a proper education they can be the engineers, doctors and lawyers, even the politicians, of the future. That’s what I wanted to do.’
In 2014 he left Human Aid and started working on business ventures which would support his bigger idea of building a permanent orphans village in Turkey for hundreds of children.
He called his charity Our World Support and Relief Association (OWSRA). To financially support this new project he explored lots of business ideas, including setting up a hair transplant company and marketing a newly-designed material which he said would help replace plastic in Turkey.
But in the spring of 2017 he found out that his mother was ill, and so he started planning a return to Britain. “My marriage was also in trouble, and we had been living apart, so I wanted to try to sort that out and so this was the right time to come home,” N3 told me.
But the political mood had significantly changed since 2013 when he first left Britain. The Islamic State had established its Caliphate. Many British Muslims had enrolled as frontline fighters. In 2014 and 2015, a group of British terrorists nicknamed The Beatles had kidnapped and tortured western hostages. Jihadi John, aka Mohammed Emwazi, had carried out a series of beheadings which had been filmed and seen around the world.
When N3 arrived at Heathrow Airport in May 2017, he was unaware of a change in counter-terror policy. “I went to immigration, I went to the self-service machine, it didn’t let me through and told me to go to the desk. I went to the desk and the lady told me to sit over there. Then two guys in suits, one white guy and one Asian guy, they told me to come with them to a room.
“At first I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but when I finished the meeting, I was scared. They went through my luggage, they were asking me, ‘do I pray, what mosque do I pray at, what are my political views, what do you think of people who eat pigs?’”
N3 said he knew that there were people pretending to be aid workers to get to Syria, so he tried to reassure them he was not one of them. An Asian man calling himself Abdul led the interrogation. “He was asking me all these strange questions. I told them about my charity work in Turkey and Syria but he didn’t care about any of that. He just kept asking these other questions.”
Forty minutes later, N3 was allowed to leave the airport.
In October 2017, N3 left Britain for the Gambia. Human Aid had done some work there and he says he was trying to set up a business with the aim of making money to fund his charity.
Three weeks later, he flew to Istanbul to reconnect with his charity and he received a shocking phone call.
“Two days after I arrived in Istanbul, I get a call from my mum, who says, ‘Look, they just stripped you of your citizenship, they just sent me the letter’. That was it man, the next two months, I was like, depressed. They said that I’m aligned to a group, and that group is aligned to a group which is aligned to al-Qaeda.” He says he does not know what the substance of the accusation is. “The worst part is that, if I knew… I’m completely in the dark.”
The news that he was no longer British was hard to take. “I felt very depressed and couldn’t get on with anything for three months. I wanted to see my wife and children in Britain but didn’t think I ever would. My youngest child is only four and I haven’t had the chance to help him grow up.”
He instructed lawyers in the UK to try to overturn the order on the grounds that he had no claim to Bangladeshi citizenship and the UK government had effectively made him stateless – which is illegal under international law.
In October 2018, a British court ruled in N3’s favour, saying that the Home Office had acted unlawfully.
The judges at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) said that as he had not sought to retain his Bangladeshi citizenship before he turned 21, it had automatically lapsed. As a result, the decision to deprive him of UK citizenship had indeed rendered him stateless.
Under the UK law, the government may deprive a person of a citizenship status if the secretary of state is satisfied that deprivation is ‘conducive to the public good’ and the deprivation does not make the person stateless because they have a connection to another country.
It is an executive power that few governments in the world have decided to grant themselves. No other EU state, nor the US, has felt it necessary.
N3 was one of a record 104 British nationals who were stripped of their nationality in 2017 by Amber Rudd, who was home secretary at the time. This was six times the number of deprivation orders imposed on British subjects the year before, although 2017 was an exceptionally bad year – 35 people were killed in terror attacks in Westminster, Manchester and at London Bridge.
The Home Office has failed to publish the latest figures, so we don’t know whether the deprivation policy has continued at the same rate, although the case of Shamima Begum, who was deprived of citizenship earlier this year, revealed that successive home secretaries have continued to use the tactic.
Begum, who left London to travel to Syria in 2015, is challenging the order, but is currently in a Syrian prison camp where she has been held since the collapse of the Islamic State. In evidence, home secretary Priti Patel said that 40% of those returned to Britain from Syria had been assessed as posing a “low security risk”.
N3 was relieved when he heard SIAC had revoked the Home Office deprivation order. But as his legal victory had dealt a damaging blow to the controversial deprivation of citizenship policy, the Home Office immediately appealed the decision.
N3 decided to wait in Turkey before making his return to the UK.
During his stay in Istanbul, he said he was approached by Turkish intelligence who offered him a chance to “get his life back” if he met a high-ranking British official in Istanbul. But he said he would only agree to the meeting if he was allowed a lawyer and the meeting never materialised.
He says he had several meetings with Turkish intelligence and immigration officers who he claimed checked out his charity, OWSRA, and praised him for what he was doing. “But they also told me to be careful and look out for myself… they said there had been cases of people being kidnapped.”
N3 says he was now feeling threatened. “So I booked a flight – I was going to come straight to the UK, but I was scared they weren’t going to let me on the plane; I was worried my passport wasn’t going to work, so I flew to Germany. No problem. Then I flew to Paris, got the train to Calais, bought the ticket in Calais for the ferry, came past the French security, no problems…”
On 4 November this year, he arrived at the ferry terminal ready to cross the English Channel.
But when he tried to pass through UK immigration controls his path was blocked. “I was told to hand them my passport and I was told to sit down. Eventually, after about two hours, they said to follow them and they took me to the Home Office section and said they were detaining me. So I said why? And they said ‘you’ve been deprived of British citizenship, that’s why’.”
He was taken to a French immigration centre. “The secret service spoke to me for an hour. They were obviously asking questions like ‘where have you been?’; asking questions about my journey, about Syria; questions like, have I been to any training camps, am I with any terrorist organisations? Obviously I gave them the answers – no, no, no. Then they put me back in the cell.”
The French government began legal moves to deport N3 to Bangladesh. Then, on 21 November, the UK Court of Appeal delivered its judgment in favour of the Home Office. N3 had lost his British citizenship for the second time, this time while being held in a French prison. The Court of Appeal judges ruled that burden of proof should have been on N3 to prove that he had been rendered stateless.
The case has now been sent back to the SIAC immigration judges to consider the issue of statelessness afresh.
N3 has never been told what he is accused of. The case against him has been made in secret to the court using unchallenged evidence and his do not know the details.
N3’s lawyer, Fahad Ansari of Duncan Lewis solicitors, told me N3 had been left stranded in a “virtual no-man’s land” with neither the Bangladeshi or British governments willing to accept him. “If the government believes that my client is aligned to a group that is aligned to militants in Syria, why then was he permitted to leave the UK on his British passport just weeks before his deprivation, without a single question being asked of him at the airport?
“My client has never been charged, let alone convicted, of a terrorism offence, He simply wishes to be permitted to return to his country to clear his name against the serious allegations that have been made against him.”
A Whitehall source said that the British government believes he had been “involved in extremist activities in Syria relating to AQ [al-Qaeda]”.
On Tuesday this week, the day after I met N3 in his Calais cell, he travelled with three armed police guards to Lille in northern France to hear whether the French courts would authorise his deportation to Bangladesh. Immigration appeals of this kind are usually heard by a single judge, but three judges were to decide N3’s case.
When I spoke to him at the court shortly before the case was called he was hopeful. “The French are pushing to send me to Bangladesh but I think now the French have realised, ‘this guy’s a Brit’… I really think they might release me today. My cell in the immigration camp is really rough – there’s four of us in four bunk beds and a toilet in the middle of the cell. The food is boiled fish and pasta. If I get out today, I’m going to have a proper curry.”
His French lawyer argued N3 was a British citizen when he was denied entry to the UK at the Calais border on 4 November. She asserted that the case was still being litigated in the UK and it would be unlawful to remove N3 to Bangladesh before his case had been concluded in the UK.
A French immigration expert also told the judges that N3 could not claim Bangladeshi citizenship as he was over 21 and had done nothing to activate legal links with the country.
The French government’s own lawyer argued that the court must follow the UK government deprivation order, although he had been unable to translate the SIAC ruling into French. He also confirmed that at a meeting between British and French security services, the UK had failed to disclose any intelligence or evidence relating to N3’s alleged threat to national security.
The three judges took ten minutes to return a verdict in favour of N3. The senior immigration judge hearing the case said the French government could not deport him to Bangladesh.
The case will further test the sensitive relationship between the British and French over border control and security. It also raises questions about the practical consequences of stripping hundreds of British nationals of their citizenship. The US government complained about this ‘dumping’ policy after the home secretary stripped two of the so-called Beatles of their nationality, leaving their crimes to be tried and punished by courts in America.
And the French government must now be asking why they are being forced to use their own security services and domestic courts to sort out what is essentially a British problem.
Meanwhile, British and French courts have left N3 without a country. He can’t go to Britain and he can’t go to Bangladesh. On Friday, a judge ordered N3 to be released to a hotel in France, but placed under house arrest.
“I’m British,” he protests, “and if someone has got something to say about me, they should say it in a British court, where I can answer any allegations.”
All photographs Getty Images