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Shamima Begum loses appeal against removal of British citizenship

Shamima Begum, Special immigration appeals commission decides revocation of her citizenship was lawful

Shamima Begum, who left Britain as a schoolgirl to join Islamic State (IS), has lost an appeal against the decision to remove her British citizenship.

Describing it as a case of “great concern and difficulty”, the special immigration appeals commission (Siac) ruled that although there was “credible suspicion” that Begum was trafficked for sexual exploitation, the decision was ultimately one for the home secretary.

Begum was 15 when in 2015 she left her home in east London with two schoolfriends to travel to Syria. In February 2019, the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, stripped her of her British citizenship after she was discovered in a refugee camp in north-east Syria.

Mr Justice Jay, who wrote the judgment, published on Wednesday, on behalf of the Siac panel, said that although there was credible suspicion that Begum “was recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purpose of sexual exploitation”, that was “insufficient” for the commission to deem the home secretary’s decision unlawful. He said it was for those advising the home secretary to consider and assess whether Begum’s travel was voluntary.

He wrote: “It is for the secretary of state to decide what is in the public interest, and how much weight to give to certain factors, subject always to this commission intervening on ordinary administrative law principles. This secretary of state, speaking through Sir James [Eadie KC], maintains that national security is a weighty factor and that it would take a very strong countervailing case to outweigh it.

“Reasonable people will profoundly disagree with the secretary of state, but that raises wider societal and political questions which it is not the role of this commission to address.”

Shamima Begum was 15 when she left her east London home to travel to Syria. Photograph: BBC

Jay said that while “many right-thinking” people would take issue with the assessment of the home secretary’s advisers that Begum’s travel in 2015 was voluntary, it was not for the commission to decide it was involuntary and then accord more weight to that finding than to the threat she posed to national security.

However, he noted that “the idea that Ms Begum could have conceived and organised all of this herself is not plausible”. The judges also said they were “concerned by the SyS’s [secretary of state’s] apparent downplaying of the significance of radicalisation and grooming in stating that what happened to Ms Begum is not unusual”.

Although Siac did not have power to rule that Begum be allowed to return to the UK, even if it found that her citizenship should not have been stripped, her case has highlighted how Britain is out of step with the US and European allies in its refusal to repatriate nationals from refugee camps in north-east Syria. Several British women detained in Syria retain British citizenship but have not been repatriated.

Last month, Spain became the latest country to start repatriating families of IS fighters from Syrian refugee camps, with two Spanish women and 13 Spanish children arriving at Torrejón military airbase near Madrid.

Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, said: “The court accepted that there is good reason to believe that Shamima Begum was a victim of trafficking. She was groomed online as a child and the UK should take responsibility for her as it would any trafficked British teenager.

“Despite today’s decision, the government’s racist citizenship-stripping policy remains unsustainable and badly out of step with security partners like the US. Britain is the only G20 country that strips citizenship in bulk and the last of our allies refusing to repatriate its nationals from north-east Syria.”

Senior Conservatives also condemned the government’s treatment of Begum. David Davis, the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficked Britons in Syria, said it was “a shameful abdication of responsibility and must be remedied”.

Sayeeda Warsi said citizenship-stripping powers “have been used almost exclusively against Muslims, mainly of south Asian, Middle Eastern and African heritage, creating a two-tier citizenship system completely at odds with British values of fairness and equality before the law.”

She said the “extreme” powers were of concern to 6 million people in Britain with a claim to dual nationality.

A Home Office spokesperson welcomed the decision, saying: “The government’s priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK and we will robustly defend any decision made in doing so.”

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