Words by Cosima Worth
TW: sexual assault, violence, racial discrimination
At 15, under UK law, you are not yet allowed to work full-time, get married, consent to sex, open a current account, have a debit card or apply for a passport. Under the state, 15-year-olds are treated as dependents, unable to live autonomous lives, because we tend to believe that they are not yet fully capable of rational thought and are vulnerable to exploitation or poor choices, and as a result require the full-time care and supervision of responsible adults. Why, then, is Shamima Begum’s case not being treated as a failure on behalf of the state to protect a vulnerable child from exploitation? Why isshe being vilified alongside those who radicalised her, rather than the adults – including teachers, parents, police, border control and the government – who fell short of fulfilling their responsibilities of care and putting in place the necessary precautions to prevent her from leaving the country.
Shamima Begum was 15 when she was encouraged by Daesh to flee to Syria from her home in Bethnal Green in 2015, alongside two friends. She has said she was drawn in by the “good life” she was offered by recruiters online. This “good life” entailed being married within 10 days of arrival, being subject to marital rape, and having three children before the age of 19, all of whom died. Nonetheless, the UK government, usually so quick to condemn underage marriages, underage sex and marital rape, arguably when it suits an anti-multiculturalist agenda and they can put up a façade of needing to ‘protect’ children of minority cultures (see: Boris Johnson recently describing the marriage of ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers as “despicable, inhuman and uncivilised”), responded not by helping Shamima, but by revoking her British citizenship. As Aina J Khan wrote, “the British government’s decision to sever her citizenship is in effect burying its head in the sand”. Essentially the government is trying to project responsibility onto other states, rather than embracing any duty of care, or seeing Shamima Begum for what she is – the text-book definition of a child trafficking victim.
Indeed, at the time she fled to Syria, the British government had previously stated that military would not be deployed to assist in the rescue of any British citizen who willingly entered Syria, and they may lose their right to British citizenship. Nonetheless, to paint Shamima Begum as a fully-consenting, entirely rational adult seems to fundamentally undermine so many of the principles our legal system centres around. What’s more, the revocation of Shamima’s citizenship goes against international human rights laws, which dictate that one can only be stripped of citizenship if it does not leave them stateless. In Shamima Begum’s case, she has been left stateless, given that despite having Bangladeshi heritage, she is entirely British, having been born and raised in London, which has made it impossible for her to acquire Bangladeshi citizenship. As Bangladesh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated, “The clear position of the government of Bangladesh is British citizen Shamima was never a Bangladeshi citizen”. Now stranded in an armed Syrian refugee camp, she cannot work, cannot make a life for herself and is in an incredibly vulnerable and dangerous position at the age of only 21-years-old. So, the question stands, why has the UK neglected to make reparations for its past failure to protect one of its own children, and even more pressing, why is the government going out of their way by violatinginternational human rights laws to prevent Shamima from re-entering the country?
There is an explicit racism issue here. Shamima Begum was born in the UK, grew up here and went to school here. She is as essentially British as any other British teenager, and yet the decision to leave her stateless is being excused using her Bangladeshi heritage, an irrelevant detail given that it does not entitle her to any alternative citizenship. If Shamima had white-Caucasian British heritage as far back at records showed, she would by default be allowed to retain her citizenship given that there would be no such tenuous excuse for its revocation (nor would anyone likely be searching for one). Ultimately then, the grounds for her exile lie exclusively in her ethnic heritage, which is about as overt as racial discrimination gets.
Shamima Begum’s case seems to form an extreme example of what appears a broader trend in the UK of excluding POC from ideas of who ‘belongs’ here, or who qualifies for recognition as British. Most individuals from ethnic minorities have experienced being asked, “Where are you from?... No, where are you really from?”. I’ve witnessed this happening to friends of mine on at least two occasions. But a conflation of whiteness with Britishness does not just manifest itself in such microaggressions. It is easy to see overt examples of this narrative at play, including, but not limited to, the variations of “send them back to their own country” that can often be observed in the comments sections of online news articles about black or minority-ethnic criminals. Worryingly, a broader narrative of whiteness as Western-ness has been publicly and emphatically perpetuated by Donald Trump in recent years, with his Muslim travel ban, his assertion that four congresswomen of colour should ‘go back to where they came from’ and his conspiracy to convince the American population that Barack Obama was not actually born in the USA. Boris Johnson has also made damaging claims about Obama, suggesting that being “part-Kenyan” gives him some “ancestral dislike of the British empire”. It seems clear that there is an epidemic of exclusion of POC from Western – or more specifically in this case – British identity, a prejudice which culminates itself in the unjustified revocation of Shamima Begum’s citizenship.
It seems suspiciously convenient that several months after former home secretary Sajid Javid made the decision to strip Shamima of her citizenship in February 2019, the case of Jack Letts became widely publicised, after his citizenship was also revoked due to his involvement with Daesh in Syria. A google search of Jack Letts brings up multiple articles which compare his case to Shamima, a fact that seems to give away a certain agenda, especially when it is considered that Jack Letts and Shamima Begum are just two of an estimated 850-1500 British nationals who left for Syria to join IS. However, even ignoring any possibility that the publicisation of Jack’s case had anything to do with appeasing accusations of racism directed at Shamima’s case, the two situations are fundamentally incomparable. Jack, a white-Caucasian dual British-Canadian citizen, was not only 18, and therefore not a minor, when he left, but was also not left stateless by the revocation of his British citizenship, because he had an existing right to live in Canada, and therefore his human rights were respected by international and domestic standards, which was not the case for Shamima (although regardless, it takes some warped sense of superiority for a country to simply palm responsibility for its own citizens off onto other states). In Jack’s case, he belongs equally in the UK and Canada, but Shamima belongs exclusively in the UK.
On the 26th February, five Supreme Court judges unanimously voted to uphold Sajid Javid’s decision and reject Shamima’s request to return to the UK to fight her case, in the name of national security concerns. This seems an incredibly disappointing violation of Shamima’s human rights. Shamima Begum belongs in the UK, and whether she can be considered a dangerous criminal deserving of prison time for her association with a terrorist organisation, or an exploited and abused young woman in need of rehabilitation and therapy, she deserves to be trialled in her home country, if not out of some duty of care for a former child failed by a system that should’ve protected her, at the very least to avoid continuing the systemic discrimination towards minority ethnic British citizens.