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Aid worker stripped of UK citizenship in Syria speaks out against 'racist' system

Tauqir Sharif, one of the most high-profile foreign nationals in Idlib, says he is speaking out about his case to highlight the UK's secretive citizenship-stripping laws
Tauqir Sharif has been based in the Atmeh camp in northern Syria since early 2013 (Live Updates from Syria)
By Simon Hooper in London

A British aid worker in Syria stripped of his citizenship has told Middle East Eye he is speaking out about his case in order to highlight how the government’s use of the powers have created a “racist” system in which some people are considered “sub-British”.

Tauqir Sharif is one of several British nationals based in the Syrian opposition-held enclave of Idlib whose cases were reported on exclusively by Middle East Eye in December 2017.

None of those targeted by citizenship revocation orders could be named until now because they are granted anonymity while their legal appeals are ongoing.

But lawyers for Sharif last week obtained a court order lifting his anonymity in order to allow him to speak openly about his case.

Tauqir Sharif
Tauqir Sharif has been an aid worker based in northern Syria since 2012 (Live Updates from Syria)

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Sharif told MEE that he believed the time had come to highlight the government’s use of citizenship revocation orders because of interest surrounding the case of Shamima Begum, and to highlight how the government was also targeting British nationals in Syria with no links to the Islamic State (IS) group.

“I feel I have a duty to the British public because I believe these laws go against British values,” said Sharif, who has been living in the Atmeh camp close to the Syrian border with Turkey since 2013.

British and 'sub-British'

“We now have a two-tier hierarchy in Britain where we have people who are British and then people who are sub-British: immigrants, naturalised citizens, or the children of immigrants.”

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Begum is the London teenager who was last week stripped of her citizenship by Home Secretary Sajid Javid after appealing to be allowed to return with her newborn baby from Syria where she lived for nearly four years in territory controlled by IS.

Under British law, the home secretary can only strip people of citizenship in most circumstances if they have dual nationality and it does not leave them stateless.

But the government’s use of the powers has surged in response to the perceived threat posed by returnees from Syria, with 104 people deprived of nationality rights in 2017, up from 14 in 2016.

Some of those, including Sharif, say that they do not consider themselves to be dual nationals, and that the government is exercising the power based on their entitlement to the citizenship of another country through their parents.

Sharif, who is from London, told MEE that his parents had come to the UK from Pakistan as young children, but that he had only visited Pakistan once, to work as an aid worker following flooding in the country in 2010.

"We must push back against this racist and abusive citizen deprivation process. Cases like Tauqir’s reveal how the government and right-wing lobbyists are exploiting ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric to influence the judiciary in ways that violate due process norms and punish humanitarian workers,” said Cerie Bullivant, a spokesperson for Cage, a campaign group which advocates on behalf of people affected by counter-terrorism policies.

In a case last year, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, the court which hears citizenship revocation appeals, ordered the government to restore the rights of two men of Bangladeshi heritage on the grounds that they had been left stateless.

The government is understood to be appealing against that ruling.

The UK and citizenship-stripping powers

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The UK has been described by researchers as a “global leader in using citizenship deprivation as a counterterrorism measure”.

Historic citizenship-stripping powers targeted at naturalised citizens on disloyalty grounds had largely fallen into disuse prior to 2002, when the government introduced new measures in an attempt to revoke the citizenship of Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born cleric subsequently convicted of terrorism in the US.

The 2002 legislation allowed for British-born nationals as well as naturalised citizens to lose their nationality rights. Successive governments gradually broadened the scope of the powers so that home secretaries can now deprive anyone of citizenship if they are satisfied that doing so is “conducive to the public good” and would not leave an individual stateless.

No criminal conviction is required. Letters often state that individuals have been assessed as presenting “a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom”.

The government’s use of the powers surged to unprecedented levels in response to the perceived threat posed by British nationals returning from Syria.

Between 2010 and 2015, 33 people were stripped of their citizenship, according to Home Office figures. In 2016, 14 people were deprived, and in 2017 the number jumped to 104.

In 2018, the figure was 21, and in in 2019 - when Shamima Begum was among those targeted - it was 27. It then dropped to ten in 2020 and eight in 2021.

Some subjects of citizenship-stripping orders argue that they have been left effectively stateless, because the government bases its assessment that they are dual nationals on a right of citizenship to a parent’s country of birth, even if they have never taken up that citizenship or even visited the country.

In some cases the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which rules on citizenship cases, has agreed: it has ruled in favour of British nationals of Bangladeshi descent on the grounds that Bangladesh does not consider them citizens if they have not claimed Bangladeshi nationality before the age of 21.  

Human rights organisations and lawyers have compared the powers to “medieval exile and banishment”. Critics also point out that the powers create a two-tier system in which only those deemed to be dual nationals are at risk of losing their British citizenship; a measure that discriminates against naturalised citizens, immigrants and their children.

Asked in 2017 to clarify how the government determined whether somebody could be served with a citizenship revocation order, a Home Office spokesperson told MEE that a “range of checks” were carried out including “research into the nationality laws of the country concerned”.

The spokesman said that those considered to be dual nationals included “people who may have been born in the UK, but who hold another nationality, for example, through one of their parents”.

Sharif said however that he preferred to fight his case on the fact that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing and had not been accused of any crimes, rather than on the basis of a “technicality” over his citizenship status.

“I want to win because I am innocent. I want them to say that I have not committed a crime.”

Sharif said that he had been notified that his citizenship had been revoked in May 2017. According to the letter sent to his family, he is assessed by the government to be “aligned with an al-Qaeda-aligned group” and to “present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom”.

The language is the same as that used in other letters to aid workers seen by MEE.

“This means that they are saying I am not ISIS, I’m not al-Qaeda, I’m not even HTS. I'm not a member of any proscribed organisations. That is not even guilt by association. It’s guilt by association with a degree of separation.”

HTS, or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is the coalition of fighters including some factions formerly aligned with al-Qaeda that now controls most of Idlib. It is considered a proscribed terrorist organisation by the British government.

'I am not begging to come home'

Sharif told MEE that he was aware of about a dozen other British nationals working in the civilian sector in Idlib who were stripped of their citizenship at around the same time.

“People like Shamima Begum and ‘Jihadi Jack’ are not helping our situation. The government is trying to paint a picture that the only people who are having their citizenship revoked are ISIS and that is completely not true,” he said.

"Jihadi Jack" is the name coined by the media for Jack Letts, another British national who travelled to IS-controlled territory, who is currently among thousands of people including many foreign nationals being held by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.
“I am not incarcerated. I am not begging to come home. I am not speaking under any duress, and I am not speaking because the so-called caliphate fell.

“There are other people, professionals, doctors and journalists whose citizenship has been removed who are legitimately here trying to help the people. Many people could be targeted under this broad legislation which is being misused.”

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Sharif first travelled to opposition-held Syria on an aid convoy in mid-2012 and has been based permanently in the Atmeh camp since early 2013. He lives with his wife, who is also British, and has five children, all born in Syria. In 2015, Sharif said he had been unable to obtain a passport for his first child, and none of them currently have travel documents that would allow them to leave Syria legally.

He was also a volunteer aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship on which ten people were killed by Israeli commandos during an attempt to break the siege of Gaza in 2010.

Over the course of Syria’s war he has become one of the most high-profile foreign nationals living in Idlib, via broadcasts on his Live Updates from Syria social media channels, and through coverage of his work by media outlets including the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, CNN and MEE, for whom he wrote as a contributor in 2016.

Sharif told MEE that he was currently responsible for managing 41 projects on the ground and a staff of 170 people. The projects include building two camps for people displaced from other areas of Syria, one of them specifically for widows and orphans.

Drawing on donations and working alongside international charities and humanitarian organisations, Live Updates for Syria has also coordinated the building of mosques, schools, solar-powered water stations within Atmeh, he said.

Live Updates for Syria also organises children’s activities including football, horse-riding and swimming lessons, and is involved in a programme to help widows dealing with depression and anxiety.

Redacted material
Redacted material presented by the government in the citizen deprivation cases includes pages in which every word is blacked out (MEE)

Sharif also delivered aid into eastern Aleppo at the height of the siege of the city in 2016, and has worked alongside the Syria Civil Defence volunteers, or White Helmets, to help rescue people and retrieve bodies in the aftermath of air strikes.

He says that he has carried weapons for protection during his time in Syria and now hires security guards to protect aid deliveries amid growing concerns for the safety of foreign volunteers in Idlib.

On Friday, a British national was reportedly among those killed in a suicide bombing in a restaurant in Idlib city, which was blamed by HTS on the Islamic State group. In January, another British aid worker, Mohammed Shakiel Shabir, was freed by HTS fighters after being kidnapped and held hostage for six weeks by an armed gang.

Earlier this month, Sharif was among foreign nationals involved in the launch of the Unity Project, an umbrella organisation established by expatriates in Idlib who are not affiliated with any fighting groups to support themselves in their work and in legal battles with their own governments.

Special Immigration Appeals Commission cases are notoriously difficult to fight, according to lawyers, because citizenship revocation orders are based solely on the home secretary’s assessment that an individual’s presence in the UK is “not conducive to the public good”.

They are usually served when a target individual is abroad, and because the revocation order takes immediate effect appellants are not allowed to return to the UK to fight their appeal in person.

Lawyers involved in fighting citizenship revocation cases have described the government’s use of the powers as “nothing less than a return to the medieval penalties of banishment and exile”.

In defending decisions, the government can also draw on intelligence from the security services that is heard by the court in secret, meaning that appellants and their lawyers cannot see all of the evidence being presented against them.

Daniel Furner, a lawyer at Birnberg Peirce and Partners who is representing Sharif, said the most troubling aspect of citizenship-stripping cases was the "total absence of reasons, or explanation" for why an individual had been targeted.

“It’s hard to think of a more serious step to take, and yet in this case we have about two lines of text, explaining why they have taken Mr Sharif’s citizenship away. If they would tell us why they think that, we would have some chance to rebut it – but as it is, we are left with nothing. How are we supposed to defend him in those circumstances?” he said.

Material presented by the government in one case seen by MEE included several pages of evidence in which every word had been redacted.

Instead, government-vetted lawyers known as special advocates are appointed to represent the appellants but cannot speak to them or their legal team about the so-called “closed material” in the case.

“These secret courts do not allow us to defend ourselves because we don’t know the evidence that is being presented against us,” said Sharif. “Put me in front of a jury and I will win, I am 100 percent certain."

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