Skip to main content

Shamima Begum loses citizenship appeal despite sex trafficking concerns

Court acknowledges 'credible suspicion' Begum was 'recruited for sexual exploitation' and failings by public authorities - but says deprivation of British citizenship on security grounds is lawful
Begum recently appeared in a BBC documentary where she denied the claims made against her by the UK government (BBC/Joshua Baker)
By Areeb Ullah in London

Shamima Begum, the British woman who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) group aged 15, lost her appeal against the UK government's decision to revoke her citizenship on Wednesday. 

The Special Immigrations Appeals Commission dismissed Begum's appeal on all grounds but acknowledged that there was "credible suspicion" that she was trafficked to Syria for the purposes of sexual exploitation. 

“In the commission's opinion, there is a credible suspicion that Ms Begum was recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purpose of sexual exploitation," the judgement said.

'The implication [of this case]  is that no British child who is being trafficked outside the UK will be protected by the British state if the home secretary invokes national security'

- Gareth Peirce, lawyer

The commission also said that state bodies in the UK, including the police, the school and local authority, had failed in their duties by "permitting Ms Begum to leave the country as she did and eventually cross the border from Turkey into Syria".

SIAC noted that "whatever the extent of her ideological commitment before she left in February 2015, Ms Begum could not have had any inkling of how much personal suffering she was destined to endure."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


But it ruled that the decision of the Home Secretary to deprive Begum of her citizenship on national security grounds was nonetheless lawful despite the issues surrounding the circumstances in which she had travelled to Syria.

Begum's lawyer, Gareth Pierce, described the decision as "extraordinary" and said: "The implication [of this case]  is that no British child who is being trafficked outside the UK will be protected by the British state if the home secretary invokes national security.

"The findings show that the commission found credible suspicion that Shamima Begum was trafficked, credible suspicion that she was harboured by the traffickers until 2019, credible suspicion that there were extraordinary failures within the UK in preventing her and her friends from travelling," Pierce told journalists outside SIAC. 

Fight not over

Daniel Furner, who also represents Begum, confirmed that they will challenge the decision and that the "legal fight is nowhere near over." 

Furner added that Shamima Begum found out about the decision at the same time as UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman at 10 am UK time on Wednesday.  

Reprieve's Maya Foa urged Britain to "take responsibility" for Shamima Begum and said the British government's policy of citizenship stripping is a "political posture, more concerned with headlines than British lives." 

'Britain is the only G20 country that strips citizenship in bulk and the last of our allies refusing to repatriate its nationals from northeast Syria'

- Maya Foa, Reprieve

Foa added: "Britain is the only G20 country that strips citizenship in bulk and the last of our allies refusing to repatriate its nationals from North-East Syria."  

The UK government meanwhile said it was "pleased that the court has found in favour of the government's position in this case.

"The government's priority remains maintaining the safety and security of the UK and we will robustly defend any decision made in doing so." 

Begum absconded from her home in east London with two school friends, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, in 2015, travelling first to Turkey and then into IS-controlled territory.

The ruling means Begum will not be eligible to reclaim her British citizenship, which was stripped from her in 2019 after she was found detained among the families of suspected IS fighters in a Kurdish-controlled detention camp in northeastern Syria.

Begum remains in a detention camp alongside tens of thousands of other women and children, many of whom were detained as territory previously under the control of IS militants was captured by Kurdish-led forces backed by an international coalition.

'Victim of trafficking'

The British government argues that she is entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents.

The ruling comes two months after Begum’s lawyers told the court she was a victim of human trafficking and that the government had created a “two-tier” system of citizenship by depriving her and others of their British citizenship.

Begum is among dozens of British nationals who travelled to Syria during the country's civil war who have been deprived of citizenship.

Suella Braverman's refugee plan is illegal. The UK will implement it anyway
Read More »

Lawyers representing the UK government said former Home Secretary Sajid Javid revoked her citizenship on national security grounds.

During last year's appeal, a serving MI5 officer who led a team investigating terrorist activity in Syria and Iraq in 2019 also addressed the court and claimed Begum was aware of what IS "was doing as a terrorist organisation at this time".

Speaking from behind the curtain, the MI5 agent, identified to the court as Witness E, said the security services did not determine if Begum was trafficked and focused solely on identifying threats to national security.  

"In my mind, it is not conceivable that an intelligent and articulate 15-year-old could not know what ISIS was doing, so in some respects, yes, I do believe she would have known what she was doing and had agency in doing so," Witness E told the court.

"MI5 are experts in national security threats and not experts on the definition of trafficking... [the security services] recognise that victims can very much [also] be a threat."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.