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20 February 2019

Revoking Shamima Begum’s citizenship shows the British government is weak

By washing its hands of the 19-year-old, the British government is taking the easy option. And helping other nations to do the same.

By Stephen Bush

The government will revoke the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, the 19-year-old who left the United Kingdom aged 15 to join Isis, who has just given birth to a baby in a refugee camp in Syria.

The immediate question is: is this legal? Governments aren’t allowed to render individuals stateless under international law. The British government’s argument is that Begum has an automatic right to Bangladeshi citizenship and as a result they aren’t in violation of international law. That case will of course be tested in the courts.

I don’t want to get into the morality of it all – from different political perspectives, the Spectator’s James Forsyth and the Guardian’s Dawn Foster cover that issue well – because while there are important moral questions about Begum’s rights as a citizen, the treatment of juvenile criminals, the wider importance of our criminal justice system, and so forth, that debate risks allowing Theresa May and Sajid Javid to paint themselves as “tough”, “hard-headed” pragmatists taking difficult decisions to protect British citizens and to punish a woman who joined a jihadist group.

The reality is that May and Javid’s decision is weak, not strong, and they are making an easy decision, not a tough one. The difficult truth, of which both are more than aware, is that following its defeat, the world is grappling with the question of what to do with the foreign fighters who travelled to join the so-called Islamic State.

More than 800 of them are being held in custody by the Syrian Defence Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, and there are many more former fighters in refugee camps all along Syria’s borders.

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The SDF, which has called for the fighters it is holding to be repatriated, is not a state and faces the very real possibility of a clash with Turkey because Ankara is determined to eliminate the Kurdish Army that makes up its bulk. Should this happen, it could easily lead to 800 being held escaping into the countryside.

The reality is that neither Bashar al-Assad’s weakened state, nor any of Syria’s neighbours, can deal with or contain the problem alone. The only safe solution to the problem is going to involve fighters being repatriated and tried by their countries of origin.

Syria’s five neighbours cannot solve the problem alone, and in washing our hands of one of our fighters the British government makes it easier for other nations to do the same.

That makes it less, not more likely, that IS militants will face justice, increases the possibility of instability, conflict and jihadist violence on Syria’s borders, and in turn risks exporting jihadist violence back to the world beyond Syria, including the United Kingdom. The British government wants to call that decision strong. It is hard to think of a less appropriate adjective.