The United Kingdom’s decision to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a British teenager who travelled from London in 2015 to ISIL-controlled Syria, highlights a deeply founded two-tier system, legal experts have said.
Begum’s case has created a media frenzy since the now 19-year-old appealed in a television interview last month to be allowed to return home with her newborn son.
Some experts say Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to strip her of her citizenship is not unique and points towards a racist policy that has for years targeted British citizens of immigrant backgrounds.
After Javid notified Begum’s parents of his decision to revoke her citizenship on February 19, British media reported that the action was taken on the grounds that she could obtain another passport because of her Bangladeshi heritage.
While Begum’s parents are of Bangladeshi heritage, she was born in Britain and has never travelled to Bangladesh. She does not hold a Bangladeshi passport, according to her lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee.
He is challenging the move, saying it leaves the 19-year-old stateless.
Although Begum’s case led to international media attention, it is not the first of its kind.
Legal experts and campaigners have pointed towards several other instances of Britain revoking nationality.
“The suggestion that this [case of Shamima Begum] is setting some kind of precedent is completely untrue. There are multiple cases of nationality revocation even before the existence of ISIS,” Moazzam Begg, head of outreach at the UK-based campaign group CAGE, told Al Jazeera.
Under the 1981 British Nationality Act, the UK home secretary has the power to revoke someone’s citizenship if they are “satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good”.
While the legal concept upon which these powers were founded had become dormant, they were updated under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act in 2002, allowing the home secretary to strip nationals of their citizenship on national security grounds, without prior approval from the courts.
It clearly appears to be a two-tier and racist system.
The act was amended again in 2006, allowing the British government to remove the citizenship of dual nationals who are considered “not conducive to the public good”. It maintained the prohibition on rendering someone stateless.
People affected can appeal the decision in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), a court that deals with cases of national security and hears evidence in secret.
According to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in 2016, the then-Home Secretary Theresa May stripped 33 dual nationals of their British citizenship on terror-related grounds since 2010. A number of citizenship revocations for other reasons brought the total to 70.
One of the earliest cases was Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born, Muslim cleric who was stripped of his British passport in 2003, but later appealed and won the case, only for the decision to be overturned in 2010.
Other prominent cases include Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, who gained and lost his British citizenship in a matter of hours in July 2006, and Russian spy Anna Chapman who was arrested by the FBI in the US and stripped of her British passport in 2010.
More recent cases include Britons who allegedly joined the fight in Syria, such as the 20 people whose citizenship was revoked by the home secretary in 2013.
Others include Mahdi Hashi, who was stripped of his British citizenship while living in Somalia in 2012, and E2 – as he is referred to in media reports – who lost his nationality in 2012 while visiting family in Pakistan.
On Monday, British media reported that 31-year-old aid worker Tauqir Sharif and his family were stuck in Syria after his UK citizenship was revoked and his eldest daughter was refused a passport.
According to CAGE’s Begg, the policy targets Britons from an immigrant or Muslim background.
“There were around 36 cases of nationality revocation in 2014, all of which hailed from a Muslim country, with the exception of one, a Russian,” he told Al Jazeera. “It [the policy] clearly appears to be a two-tier and racist system.”
“There are many cases where people have had their nationality revoked based upon secret evidence, evidence you cannot challenge, cannot see, nor can your lawyers see,” said Begg. “That throws up another issue: What is the British government doing using secret evidence?”
Although previous amendments to the Nationality Act maintained that making someone stateless is prohibited, a 2014 amendment to the Act allows UK citizenship to be removed if there are “reasonable grounds for believing” the person would be able to become a citizen of another country.
In the home secretary’s letter to Sharif, he described the aid worker as a “British-Pakistani dual national”.
The whole policy is inherently racist and discriminatory in its application. It can only be used against British citizens who are the children of immigrants.
Although Javid has said that he did not use this measure in Begum’s case, Akunjee, her lawyer, argues that the move has in effect made her stateless and breached international law.
“The UK home secretary is violating international law by stripping people of their citizenship on a whim. This can only be done when someone is deemed a dual national,” said Akunjee.
“The reality is Shamima Begum was born, bred and radicalised in the UK, and then she travelled to Syria. None of this has anything to do with Bangladesh.”
“In her [Begum’s] case, we got a very clear message from the Bangladeshi government which would suggest that, according to their view of their law, she is not a citizen, nor will she be able to avail herself of any citizenship at this junction. Given that position, she is technically stateless.”
Following Javid’s move, Bangladesh’s Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan said Begum’s case had “nothing to do” with Dhaka.
Fahad Ansari, a UK lawyer who has overturned decisions to revoke the citizenship of two Britons of Bangladeshi origin, said identity was at the core of the issue.
“The whole policy is inherently racist and discriminatory in its application. It can only be used against British citizens who are the children of immigrants,” he told Al Jazeera. “The idea being it is only against those who are perceived as never having belonged in the UK in the first place.”