By Rebecca Anderson
Shamima Begum’s request to return to Britain from a Syrian refugee camp has caused enormous controversy and exposed again the precarious position of second-generation migrants.
Begum travelled to Syria at age 15 to marry an Islamic State fighter. Now aged 19, with a new-born baby, she wants to return home. In February, Home Secretary Sajid Javid ordered that Begum be stripped of her British citizenship and, when questioned in Parliament, announced that “over 100 people have already been deprived in this way”.
Asked about the case, Jeremy Corbyn said, “She obviously has, in my view, a right to return to Britain. On that return she must obviously face a lot of questions about everything she has done and at that point any action may or may not be taken. But I think the idea of stripping somebody of their citizenship when they were born in Britain is a very extreme manoeuvre indeed.”
The question of whether Begum was groomed, whether she remains brainwashed by ISIS or whether she has committed crimes in Syria are secondary to the question of citizenship. Begum is a British citizen and her citizenship is a right not a privilege.
The idea she could be stripped of it is a dangerous threat to all British citizens but particularly the children of migrants. The fact that this threat is only made and carried out against Black and minority ethnic citizens exposes it as a racist policy.
Depriving people of their British citizenship and deporting criminals, who either have dual nationality or never bothered to become citizens after being brought here in their infancy or childhood, has increasingly become a tactic of successive Home Secretaries. However, the practice has mushroomed under Theresa May and now Sajid Javid.
The Immigration Act (2014) extends this provision to those “able, under the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, to become a national of such a country or territory,” regardless of whether the individual claims another country’s citizenship or that other country actually accepts their claim.
Liberty has denounced the policy as “taking us down a very dangerous road… making our criminals someone else’s problem is… the government washing its hands of its responsibilities… Banishment belongs in the dark ages.”
As Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has stated, the Home Secretary “hasn’t only exposed how unsecure the citizenship rights of people are, he has called into question the very nature of what it means to be a citizen of this country.”
Shamima Begum’s case is a stark reminder that, despite the public outcry over the treatment of the Windrush generation, the British government has not altered its view of non-white citizens. Exposure of the denial of the Windrush generation’s citizenship, destruction of their documents and subsequent deportations to Caribbean countries demonstrated the fundamentally racist nature of the British state.
Begum’s radicalisation as a teenager is inseparable from the murderous role Britain plays on the international stage and her vulnerability to grooming at least assisted by the Islamophobia endemic in British society. It is the responsibility of the British government to deal with the consequences of its actions.
There is much speculation over what crimes Begum may have committed or what threat she may pose but fundamentally those are Britain’s problems. Making a person stateless is not a legitimate punishment for anyone, let alone a person yet to be convicted of any crime.
This whole episode raises a challenge to the Labour movement to resist the pressure of the rabidly racist and xenophobic tabloid press and their supporters in government. The wholly ambiguous law Sajid Javid has relied upon to remove fundamental rights of over 100 people must be overturned in favour of an affirmation of the absolute and irrevocable right to citizenship for all: those who are born here, and those who come to live and work here.