For all the talk of humanity and democracy, it’s utterly shameful the UK establishment won’t save Shamima Begum

Although it didn’t come as any great surprise, the Court of Appeal decision in the Shamima Begum case this afternoon has been a crushing blow to the 24-year-old’s attempts to find sanctuary and a restart her life here in the UK. The ruling by the three appeal judges was unanimous in supporting earlier decisions to deprive Begum of her citizenship 2019, four years after she left the UK aged 15 to join Islamic State in Syria.

Begum was born in London and was a student when she and two school friends – who became known as the Bethnal Green Trio – travelled to Syria in February 2015. Her journey was facilitated by an IS smuggler who was also working for Canadian intelligence. Ten days after her arrival Begum married a Dutch IS member and lived in Raqqa, once a stronghold of the group. She had three children in quick succession, all of whom died in infancy.

She was discovered at the Al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria by war correspondent Anthony Loyd; the following day Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked her British citizenship and pledged that she would never be allowed to return to the UK.

In July 2020 the Court of Appeal ruled that Begum should be permitted to return to the UK in order to fairly contest the Home Secretary’s decision. During the following two years a number of legal initiatives have been reversed or overturned, despite there being a “credible suspicion” that Begum had been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and evidence of “arguable breaches of duty” by UK authorities in having allowed her to make the journey to Syria.

In February 2020, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission ruled that Javid’s decision to revoke Begum’s British citizenship had been lawful, on grounds of national security, and it was this decision that was challenged unsuccessfully in the Court of Appeal.

There is still one avenue left –the Supreme Court – but the unanimous rejection of all the legal arguments presented doesn’t bode well for Shamima’s chances of gaining a full appeal at the Supreme Court. Despite this obstacle, her solicitor Daniel Furner has said that her legal team is “not going to stop fighting until she does get justice and until she is safely back home”.

Like so many UK legal processes, the latest case was not to re-evaluate the whole question of Begum’s right or not to UK citizenship, but was simply to assess whether or not the previous courts had followed the correct and proper procedures in reaching their decision.

As Lady Chief Justice Baroness Carr said in her summing up: “It could be argued the decision in Ms Begum’s case was harsh. It could also be argued that Ms Begum is the author of her own misfortune. But it is not for this court to agree or disagree with either point of view. Our only task is to assess whether the deprivation decision was unlawful. We have concluded it was not, and the appeal is dismissed.”

Sadly it now seems likely that Begum, who is currently living in the al-Roj detention camp in north eastern Syria, is likely to stay there for the foreseeable future since she is effectively stateless.

Sir James Eadie KC, for the Home Office, said the “key feature” in the case was national security. “The fact that someone is radicalised, and may have been manipulated, is not inconsistent with the assessment that they pose a national security risk,” he said.

Frankly, the notion that Shamima Begum poses a credible and significant security threat to the United Kingdom is not only untenable, but hits at the heart of a case that goes to the core of deep-seated national prejudice, and irrational fear of the stranger in our midst.

There are three chapters to the Begum story – firstly the outrage of a 15 year old child being manipulated, trafficked and radicalised here on UK soil, to the extent that she and two friends fled the country into the clutches of a murderous terrorist group; secondly the perceived threat of a radicalised teenager on the loose in the UK, and thirdly the tragedy of a young mother in extremely fragile circumstances who has lost her three children and can’t persuade any country to give her refuge.

To make matters even more complex the publicity that the case has attracted has been set against a backdrop of fears about the growth of international terrorism, and in particular Islamic terrorism. This hasn’t been helped by media interviews that Begum has given, which have encouraged the public to draw their own varied conclusions about the honesty of her contrition and even the material facts of the case.

For the government and the legislature such emotive considerations are outweighed by a pragmatic and inflexible approach to dealing with cases of national security. The then Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, needed only to convince himself that Ms Begum represented a potential security threat to sanction her banishment.

The question of the circumstances that put her in Syria and into the hands of IS was never a consideration, and could never be allowed to be, as this would move government ministers into the politically dangerous territory of having to balance national security considerations with questions of whether or not someone is a victim.

Whilst this may be uncomfortable territory for politicians, it is where they ought to be. British citizenship is a fundamental right established way back at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was signed, which ensured that no citizen could be exiled “except by the lawful judgment of [her] peers and the law of the land”, and even this cannot be enacted today if it leaves the subject stateless. Little wonder then that the establishment wants everyone to focus on the potential terrorist threat that it believes is posed by Begum, presumably on the grounds of ‘once a terrorist, always a terrorist’?

But what are the risks posed to the UK by one 24-year-old woman? Academic research suggests that the terror threat posed by jihadis returning to the West is actually extremely low and reduces significantly after one year when individuals become fully re-absorbed into British society. Unfortunately, whilst the politics of fear may be a convenient device to avoid complex and potentially controversial decisions, it is precisely what terrorist groups would like the population to focus on as it undermines core British values and the way of life in the UK.

It is for this reason that legislators ought to have considered a lot more carefully the response to the Shamima Begum case. What should have been a relatively straightforward and insignificant reabsorption of one British citizen has spiralled uncontrollably into a global debate about the nature of a whole range of moral and political issues, including the West’s treatment of child captives, the rights of citizenship and its deep-seated suspicion of the stranger on our doorstep.

To deprive a young person of their right to citizenship and cast them into the global wilderness is one of the most brutal actions any state can take, and it doesn’t read well for our proclaimed commitment to the democratic values of openness, inclusivity and refuge for the oppressed.

Writing about the Shamima Begum case in the Church Times back in 2019, Dr Anna Rowlands, St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, argued powerfully that in the Begum case we have an obligation to provide a counter narrative of hospitality in the face of the “logic of war”.

“We do not have an acceptable moral reason to exclude Ms Begum,” said Rowlands, “and, positively expressed, we have an obligation if we are not to be changed ourselves at the hands of the twisted ideologues of our age.

“There may be no immediate promise of justice, but in the abyss of war the humanity of hospitality stands in the immediate moment as its proxy. This proxy for justice is what we perhaps owe to Ms Begum right now: an interval of care, and the promise of both a kind of justice and a form of love to come, whose shape we will have to figure out.”

Whilst figuring this out may be difficult – or even too frightening to contemplate – for our legislators, it’s not so challenging if one turns to Catholic theology. The concept of restorative justice has been tested across numerous conflicts over the past decades (for instance after the genocide in Rwanda)– and the process of a fair trial, acknowledgement of wrongdoings and reparations to the affected community is a powerful antidote to terrorist messages that seek to undermine human rights and the rule of law.

Ironically, UK already has a track record of doing just this in Northern Ireland, where demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration worked in parallel with legislative changes to help transform a land that had been ripped apart by acts of endemic terrorism.

Elsewhere in the world similar strategies have been extremely effective – in Germany and Scandanavia “exit” programmes have been set up to help people leave neo-Nazi groups, in Columbia there have been very effective programmes to reintegrate former rebels and the same has been done in East Africa with members of the Al-Shabab terrorist group.

The three key principles for re-education in such circumstances are providing skills for a better future, counselling to address trauma and beliefs and monitoring and supporting a person within their community. In essence, restoring dignity and human worth where self-belief and concern for others has been erased.

Given that we have been capable of creating such transformations in some of the most bitter, embedded and bloody conflicts in human history, it seems utterly shameful that somehow we cannot bring peace, resolution and a hope for the future to one, vulnerable and incredibly damaged 24 year old woman.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian