“What’s strange is that the Supreme Court recognises that this is inherently unfair,” Shamima Begum’s family lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee, told me when we spoke recently. He was referring to the recent Supreme Court ruling that Begum, who joined Islamic State as a teenager in 2015, cannot return to the UK to challenge the government’s decision to remove her British citizenship.
The judgment states that Begum’s appeal should be delayed until she can play an “effective part” in the proceedings. It goes on: “That is not a perfect solution, as it is not known how long it may be before that is possible. But there is no perfect solution to a dilemma of the present kind.” With no clear date or criteria for when the appeal can restart, Akunjee said he was “quite surprised” and “somewhat concerned that this judgement… appears to rub out the notion of ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.”
The court unanimously rejected a previous ruling that said Begum’s right to a fair trial overruled the national security concerns the government cited when refusing to allow her to return. Akunjee believes that Begum, 21, whose three children all died young, is now in a state of legal limbo. She is stuck in a Syrian refugee camp guarded by the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish militia, and unable to press ahead with her appeal.
“It is in no way a happy solution,” Akunjee, 43, a criminal defence solicitor, said. “Effectively what [the ruling] does is put the burden on a young woman who is in a refugee camp, who does not have ability to feed or clothe herself and didn’t have the ability to even maintain her children’s lives to somehow overcome the challenges of an international war and to give her evidence to a tribunal.
“It is very lopsided: on the one hand we have the British state that could do something about it and then on the other hand we have somebody who’s de facto stateless and who really can’t do much about it.”
Upon arriving in Syria, Begum, aged 15 at the time, was married to a Dutch fighter with whom she had three children. But with the caliphate nearing its end at the start of 2019, she fled during the battle of Baghouz to al-Hawl camp in north-eastern Syria where she was discovered by the Times’ war correspondent Anthony Loyd in February. By this point, she had already lost two children and was pregnant with her third, who later died at al-Roj camp where she remains. Within a week the Home Secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, had deprived her of her British citizenship.
Akunjee said that Begum is still committed to the appeal and returning to the UK. How does he think she is doing? “How is anyone who’s lost three children in war and is blocked from coming home to be with their family? She’s not going to be in a good way.” Akunjee believes that al-Roj camp is a safer environment for Begum “in that there aren’t marauding groups of Isis sympathisers without any security” and there’s a lower risk of being attacked.
When Loyd met her at the camp in October 2019, he noticed that she wore an open-faced, maroon headscarf with trainers instead of her full-body black garb. Recent footage following the ruling showed her without a veil, wearing sunglasses and carrying a purse. Akunjee thinks this reflects her desire to fit into the camp where there are many Europeans.
“I imagine that’s more to do with existing, survival and maintaining relationships like it is anywhere really… She’s not the same as she was when she went to al-Hawl… it’s fairly clear that she’s changing with her environment.”
Akunjee became involved with the cases of three Bethnal Green girls, including Begum, when they travelled to Syria in 2015. Since then, he has advised the families on encouraging the girls to return home and has kept the security services informed of their whereabouts. He said that once every three months or so Begum is able to speak with her family on the phone for around a minute.
In February 2019, Akunjee travelled to talk to her about the appeal having received permission to see Begum from an SDF commander. But the guards at al-Roj camp “got a bit nervous and basically detained us thinking we were some sort of weird force or something, and they went through our phones. We were detained for about half an hour, and they refused to let us in”. Akunjee worked for the families on a pro bono basis and then handed the case over to the lawyers with a legal aid contract to pursue the appeal.
Had the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Begum she would have been issued with British travel documents and been legally able to return to the UK. “She would have then had the door open and it would be a question of the SDF recognising that and facilitating her return,” Akunjee said. While he believes that Begum would have been subject to a TPIM order to restrict her movements in the UK, he thinks that her arrest would have been unlikely.
Akunjee believes that a crucial aspect of the case is that the SDF will not allow lawyers to speak with Begum, depriving her of access to the judicial system. And this could happen to others. If someone has their citizenship denied in isolated circumstances, then national security could trump their right to return home to appeal. As people sought to return from Syria and Iraq, the number deprived of their citizenship by the UK government increased from 14 in 2016 to 104 in 2017. “It’s fundamentally important because of its denial of the right to access an appeals process – that really does rock the notion of fair trials, albeit in a narrow scenario,” Akunjee said. “But the fact that [the principle of a fair trial] has even been considered as violable is fundamentally troubling.”
What happened to Begum is only applicable to those with dual nationality, and herein lies another problem. Under international law a person cannot be made stateless through the stripping of their citizenship. In Begum’s case, the UK government argued, her Bangladeshi heritage meant that she had another route to citizenship. But as Shiraz Maher recently noted in the New Statesman, the ruling therefore creates two tiers of citizenship: those whose citizenship could be deprived, and those whose could not.
“It gives life to the idea now that there are grades of citizenship,” Akunjee said. “If you hark from, or your parents hark from, a country that isn’t the UK that could theoretically give you citizenship, then your British citizenship is of a lower quality than people whose parents don’t hark from another country.”
Akunjee and Begum’s other lawyers are still ruminating on how to proceed. But crucial to restarting the appeal against the deprivation of her citizenship is acquiring new evidence and establishing a reliable line of communication with Begum. “The real problem is the SDF’s position [not to let lawyers see her],” Akunjee said, “so evidentially now we have to think about what can be achieved.”