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Shamima Begum loses bid to regain British citizenship as appeal judges side with ministers

Shamima Begum has lost her bid to regain British citizenship after Court of Appeal judges ruled the government was entitled to block her return to the UK to protect national security.

The former East London schoolgirl left the UK and travelled to ISIS-controlled Syria in 2015, when she was 15-years-old, and her citizenship was revoked four years later when she turned up in a Syrian refugee camp.

Begum married a jihadi fighter and gave birth to three of his children during her time with the terrorist group, and now argues she was a victim of trafficking who was exploited as a teenager when she left the UK.

Last year the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) rejected her bid to regain British citizenship, and Court of Appeal judges today backed that decision.

Delivering the ruling, Lady Chief Justice Lady Carr said: “It could be argued that the decision in Ms Begum’s case was harsh; it could also be argued that Ms Begum is the author of her own misfortune.

“But it is not for the court to agree or disagree with either point of view.

A CCTV still of Shamima Begum at Gatwick Airport leaving the UK for Syria (Metropolitan Police /PA) (PA Media)
A CCTV still of Shamima Begum at Gatwick Airport leaving the UK for Syria (Metropolitan Police /PA) (PA Media)

“The only task of the court was to assess whether the deprivation decision was unlawful. Since it was not, Ms Begum’s appeal is dismissed.”

The Court of Appeal concluded then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid “was aware of the circumstances of Ms Begum’s departure to Syria” when he stripped her of citizenship.

“Material before him powerfully expressed the view that people who were children when they went to align with ISIS should be considered first and foremost as victims”, said the judge.

“The Secretary of State took into account the possibility Ms Begum had been a victim of trafficking.”

She said that position was kept under review, and added that though Begum may have been “influenced” she could also have made a “calculated decision to travel to Syria”.

The judge said decisions on national security have been “entrusted by Parliament to the Secretary of State”, who has the benefit of access to intelligence briefings.

The court backed SIAC’s original decision and dismissed five grounds of appeal brought by Begum, including that she had been effectively left stateless by the decision to remove her UK citizenship.

Reacting to the decision, Begum’s solicitor Daniel Furner has promised her and the Government “we are not going to stop fighting until she does get justice and until she is safely back home”.

Begum was a student at Bethnal Green Academy in east London before she and two schoolfriends, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, left the UK in February 2015, destined for Syria via Turkey.

Within days of reaching the ISIS-controlled territory, she married Dutch-born Muslim convert Yago Riedijk and they went on to have three children together – all of whom have since died.

Her case shot to international prominence in February 2019 when she was found by a Times journalist in a Northern Syria refugee camp, and made comments about not regretting her decision to join the terror group. But she also expressed a wish to return to the UK.

Schoolchildren Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum, then aged 15, at Gatwick in February 2015 (PA)
Schoolchildren Amira Abase, Kadiza Sultana and Shamima Begum, then aged 15, at Gatwick in February 2015 (PA)

Her citizenship was withdrawn in 2019 by Mr Javid, setting the stage for a legal battle that has raged in the subsequent years.

Begum, who is now 24, says she was failed by the UK authorities before her journey to Syria, and she has accused the government of failing to properly consider whether she was a trafficking victim before revoking citizenship.

“(Her) trafficking was a mandatory, relevant consideration in determining whether it was conducive to the public good and proportionate to deprive her of citizenship, but it was not considered by the Home Office”, said Samantha Knights KC, who is part of Begum’s legal team.

“As a consequence, the deprivation decision was unlawful.”

Sir James Eadie KC, the barrister representing the Home Office, said decisions on trafficking are separate to the decision whether to revoke citizenship, which involves “the protection of the public at large”.

He told the court: “The fact that someone is radicalised, and may have been manipulated, is not inconsistent with the assessment that they pose a national security risk.

Lord Chief Justice Dame Sue Carr delivering the ruling on Friday morning (PA Video/PA Wire)
Lord Chief Justice Dame Sue Carr delivering the ruling on Friday morning (PA Video/PA Wire)

“Ms Begum contends that national security should not be a ‘trump’ card. But the public should not be exposed to risks to national security because events and circumstances have conspired to give rise to that risk.”

When it ruled on her case, SIAC concluded there were “arguable breaches of duty” by state bodies – including the Metropolitan Police, Tower Hamlets Council and Ms Begum’s school – in not preventing her from travelling to Syria.

But the government argued those alleged failings did not impact on a separate decision four years later to take away her citizenship.

The SIAC ruling also found a "credible suspicion" that Begum was "recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purpose of sexual exploitation".

Her argument was that the Home Office should have ordered a full investigation into the circumstances of her departure to Syria before taking a decision on citizenship.

But the Court of Appeal decided that only “reasonable steps” to investigate where legally required.

Maya Foa, the director of human rights lobby group Reprieve, said: “This whole episode shames ministers who would rather bully a child victim of trafficking than acknowledge the UK’s responsibilities.

“Stripping citizenship in bulk and abandoning British families in desert prisons is a terrible, unsustainable policy designed to score cheap political points. Rather than demonise Shamima Begum, ministers should reckon with the institutional failures that enabled ISIS to traffic vulnerable British women and girls.

“What the courts have recognised today is that this was a political decision. It is now a political problem, and the government holds the key to solving it.

“If the government thinks that Shamima Begum has committed a crime, she should be prosecuted in a British court. Citizenship stripping is not the answer.

The Home Office has insisted that Begum, who is British born, can seek out Bangladeshi citizenship, but she is currently stateless.

Following Friday’s ruling from Lady Carr, Lord Justice Bean and Lady Justice Whipple, Begum can seek to pursue her case to the UK Supreme Court.

Following the ruling, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We are pleased that the Court of Appeal has found in favour of our position in this case.

“Our priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK and we will robustly defend any decision made in doing so”.