Returning to the UK from IS
The story of Shamima Begum is so high profile at present that we hardly need to repeat the basic facts which have emerged in the press. In short, at the age of fifteen she ran away to join IS in the company of two other London schoolgirls. At a later stage, she married a Dutch fighter and had three children with him, two of whom died in infancy, whilst a third was born days ago in a Syrian refugee camp. Debate is now raging as to whether she should be allowed to return to the United Kingdom, with feelings running high on both sides. The Government have been clear throughout that no British lives will be risked to assist her return, a stance consistent with current policy that consular assistance is not available in Syria. Meanwhile, the Home Secretary has further commented in the press that he will use his powers to try to prevent individuals who left Britain to join ISIS from returning.
Watching the video footage of Shamima being interviewed is disturbing, and for many people confusing. On the one hand, her apparent lack of remorse, mixed with sporadic attempts to justify IS violence, are difficult to hear. Yet, her obvious confusion and discomfort when pressed about the killing of children, and in particular the Manchester bombing, make it clear that she is not entirely without doubts at some level.
She may or may not be calculatingly saying what is necessary in a bid to escape a nightmare, and equally she may or may not still be being used as a pawn by third parties. Undoubtedly, she has willingly supported some truly heinous acts, and in many respects affirms as an adult the decisions made as an adolescent, but at the same time she was very young when she left the UK, has suffered the immense trauma of losing two children, and is still recovering from giving birth. Putting all of these factors together, King Solomon himself might have a migraine trying to work out how best to respond.
The legal argument which is currently raging revolves around whether Shamima Begum can be legitimately deprived of her status as a British citizen, and this would be particularly problematic if the decision would render her stateless, in breach of the international human rights law. The UK Government are arguing that they are entitled to withdraw her citizenship, as she is able to claim Bangladeshi nationality through her mother. However, in the last few hours authorities in Bangladesh have indicated that Ms Begum will not be welcomed by that jurisdiction either.
Whichever way you look at it, Shamima Begum is in an unenviable position. Her fate will now be determined by political as well as purely legal factors, as in invariably the case with scenarios playing out in an international arena. Furthermore, the enforceability of international law, as it is well known, is a questionable issue, and there will be conflicting political pressures on the UK Government, and to a lesser extent on Bangladesh, with demands to both reject and accept pleas for assistance. All things considered, Ms Begum finds herself in a tragic situation, which is the consequence of embracing an ideology which rejected liberal democracy and international human rights norms, in favour of violence, terror and theocratic oppression. There is now no easy or clean way forward. Even if she does ultimately return to Europe and genuinely wants with all of her heart to be part of mainstream society, reintegrating herself at any level will be a huge challenge. There is also the tragedy of her children, two of her babies led short lives, full of unnecessary suffering, and the third child faces an uncertain future and likely separation from his mother.
Some problems are not of the sort which lawyers can solve. We would suggest that our collective responsibility should be to consider how future young people can be encouraged to make better choices than those of Shamima Begum and her friends, and how parents can be better equipped to support and care for their children. Why was Shamima not taught better critical thinking skills? How much unmonitored internet access was she given, and from what age? How open were lines of communication at home, in school and elsewhere? We do not, of course, have the answers, and it isn’t our place (or very helpful) to seek to establish blame in this case. Nevertheless, as a society, it will be helpful to consider how to give people the best possible chance of using their freedom and opportunities in healthy and positive ways.
Now Bangladesh washes its hands of Shamima Begum (The National 21/2/19)
Shamima Begum: I didn’t want to become an ISIS poster girl BBC News (18/2/19)
UK Government: Foreign travel advice Syria (UK Government 17/1/19)