Shamima Begum, Sajid Javid, and the legal question of citizenship

Shamina Begum is the world-famous “ISIS bride” who traveled to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria at 15 years old and married an ISIS fighter. She now wishes to return home; however, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has stated that he will not permit her to return. She was stripped her of her British citizenship in February 2019 and her case is under appeal. It was revealed recently that Begum will be eligible for legal aid. Despite near-universal condemnation of ISIS, the decision has provoked considerable controversy on legal grounds.

  • Last updated May 1, 2019 11:30:48 AM
  • David Carnes
Image: Twitter Trends 2019. License below.

Involuntary loss of citizenship under British law

Although the British Nationality Act of 1981 established several different classes of British citizenship, it appears that Ms. Begum was a full British citizen with the right of abode until February 2019. The British Nationality Act, however, provides that “The Secretary of State may by order deprive a person of a citizenship status if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good.” 

The wording sounds rather straightforward, even if its ambiguity might appear to grant the Secretary of State arbitrary power to revoke the citizenship of any Briton. There is a major exception, however—the Secretary of State may not revoke a person’s citizenship “if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless.” Apparently, then, the legality of the citizenship revocation decision turns on whether it renders Ms. Begum stateless. 

Bangladeshi nationality and the issue of statelessness

Ms. Begum was born in Britain to parents of Bangladeshi heritage, and it has been reported that her mother was a Bangladeshi citizen. More than one lawyer with expertise in Bangladeshi citizenship issues has asserted that under Bangladeshi citizenship law, Ms. Begum is eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship due to her mother’s citizenship. Bangladesh, however, has announced that it will not allow Ms. Begum to enter the country.

These lawyers assert that Ms. Begum attained Bangladeshi citizenship at birth, rendering her a dual national until her British citizenship was revoked, and that she is rightfully a Bangladeshi citizen at the present time. If this analysis prevails, Ms. Begum is likely to lose her appeal regardless of whether she is permitted to actually enter Bangladesh. 

The citizenship status of Bangladeshi citizens born overseas

Apparently, although under Bangladeshi nationality law a child born overseas to one Bangladeshi parent attains Bangladeshi citizenship automatically, it is considered “dormant” as long as she resides overseas. The dormant citizenship of a Bangladeshi who was born and resides overseas lapses when she reaches 21 unless she makes a special effort to revive it. Since Ms. Begum is currently only 19 years old, it doesn’t appear too late for her to attempt to revive her dormant Bangladeshi citizenship and thereby avoid statelessness. 

Several legal questions linger in the background of this analysis, none of which seem to suggest obvious answers: 

Whether Bangladesh’s citizenship law allows the government to block a ‘dormant’ citizen from reviving her citizenship based on a criminal act such as joining a terrorist organization. 

Whether Ms. Begum’s decision not to attempt to revive her dormant Bangladeshi citizenship (as her lawyer might advise) would qualify her as “stateless” under the British nationality act, notwithstanding that her statelessness (i) would be voluntary, and (ii) would not become effective until she turns 21. In 2018, the government lost an appeal filed by two British citizens whose citizenships were revoked after they voluntarily failed to revive their ‘dormant’ Bangladeshi citizenship.

Whether Ms. Begum would be considered “stateless” for the purposes of the British Nationality Act if the Bangladeshi government affirmed her citizenship but nevertheless denied her right to enter Bangladesh. One might argue that the issue of the prohibition against rendering a person “stateless” by revoking their British citizenship boils down to the intent behind the provision—to avoid leaving someone with no citizenship status at all, or to avoid leaving someone with no right of abode anywhere in the world. 

Historical precedents 

Although since 1948 the UK has freely allowed dual citizenship, this dual citizenship status always carries with it the risk of revocation of British citizenship to the extent that it prevents statelessness. Given that Home Secretary Sajid Javid himself has publicly admitted that the 2018 Windrush scandal was triggered by the wrongful deportation of 83 people, it is becoming obvious that the fate of dual citizens is strongly influenced by the prevailing political climate.

Is media coverage hurting Begum’s chances? 

Ms. Begum has complained that media coverage of her case has triggered an intent on the part of the government to “make an example” of her. Indeed, the Home Office has confirmed that several hundred British citizens have returned to the UK after having fought with groups such as ISIS. In mid-April 2019, however, Ms. Begum was granted access to taxpayer-funded legal aid. It remains to be seen whether her appeal will be decided by legal or political considerations.


Image license: Twitter Trends 2019

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