5 years after Shamima Begum, now 20, left the UK for Syria and the so-called Islamic State, the Court of Appeals has said that she may return.
Stating that the government had left Begum without the ability to effectively challenge the decision, the presiding Justices ruled that she should be permitted to return to contest the government’s action. Her citizenship was removed by the government in 2019, shortly after she was found in a Syrian refugee camp, the then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid citing security issues as justification for the decision.
The Court explicitly did not grant her the absolute right to return, but said that she could return to the UK solely to fight her court case against the Home Office decision. The Court’s Approved Judgement said:
Notwithstanding the national security concerns about Ms Begum, I have reached the firm conclusion that given that the only way in which she can have a fair and effective appeal is to be permitted to come into the United Kingdom to pursue her appeal, fairness and justice must, on the facts of this case, outweigh the national security concerns, so that the [Leave To Enter] appeals should be allowed.
What this means is that Begum will be permitted to enter the UK, regardless of whatever concerns the government has about the security risks. In the Judgement, the Justices noted the government’s concerns, but said that there was a substantial difference in seriousness between Begum’s case and those that government lawyers used as precedents, which included an individual who had travelled to and from Syria multiple times, and was connected to many other dangerous terrorists. The Judgement pointed out that the court had no issue with Begum being arrested or charged upon her arrival in the UK, or made subject to a Terrorist Prevention and Investigation Measures order, under the 2011 Act of that name. The Home Office issued a statement saying “this is a very disappointing decision by the court – we will now apply for permission to appeal this judgement and to stay its effects pending any onward appeal.”
Reaction to the ruling has been varied. Jonathan Lis, Deputy Director of the Pro-Europe pressure group British Influence, tweeted that Begum was a “groomed child”, whose baby (also a British citizen) had been “allowed to die”, and noted that “if human rights only apply to people you like[sic]… then they mean nothing”. Emma Webb, who leads the Forum on Integration, Democracy and Extremism at the Westminster thinktank Civitas, remarked that “[Begum] knew what she was joining” which, in Webb’s words, was a “genocidal proto-state”, who’s crimes against British citizens were well-known. By contrast, Gary Younge, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, and former Guardian columnist, argued that the notion that Britain was not equipped to deal with whatever threat Begum posed was “worse than pathetic”, and heralded the ruling as “great news”.
Sajid Javid, who made the decision to revoke her citizenship, issued a statement declaring that “any restriction of rights and freedoms faced by Ms Begum are a direct consequence of the actions she has taken“. He claimed that any prosecution would have minimal chance of securing a conviction for crimes committed overseas, and once in the country, “it will prove impossible to subsequently remove her“. This claim was challenged by the Secret Barrister, an anonymous legal commentator, who denounced the statement as ‘misleading, self-serving waffle’.
Shamima Begum’s case lies at the crossroads between human rights, counter-terrorism and the law. It is a crossroads that is the subject of much anger and frustration on all sides. As Begum moves to the next phase of her legal action against the UK government, that looks set to continue.