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Citizenship deprivation: the Shamima Begum case

Earlier this month we addressed some of the normative problems surrounding the expansion of citizenship deprivation powers that have been introduced in several countries, including Canada and Australia. Citizenship law is thus converted into a tool of security policy worldwide. Britain has also been using these powers in recent years and on a larger scale than other countries. However, it’s the case of Shamima Begum, a 19-year-old who is stripped of her British citizenship (without prior criminal conviction) as a result of her fleeing to Syria four years ago and marrying a Dutch Islamic State fighter, that has now led to public attention for global deprivation practices.

Complicating factor in the case is whether Begum holds Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents. As this is denied by Bangladesh, Begum could be left stateless. British law, however, only allows deprivation if this is ‘conducive to the public good’ and does not leave someone stateless. As someone is not considered stateless under British law if the person is able to become a national of another country, Jonathan Shaub explains that ‘Begum’s citizenship will likely turn on whether or not revocation will render her stateless, which includes the question of whether the government has reasonable grounds to believe she may be able to become a Bangladeshi citizen’. There is also the link with the Netherlands through her husband – a convert to Islam – who would like to return with her to the Netherlands to ‘live with the consequences of their decision’, although it’s unclear at this stage what form that would take.

Leaving aside the citizenship aspect, there is the question whether her case and those of other ‘ISIS brides’ are worth any consideration. While some argue that the use of citizenship law as a weapon to express displeasure at a citizen’s conduct hurts the justice system, others feel we should be expressing sympathy to the people who have suffered under ISIS rule, for example the Yazidis. In any case, it’s clear that Europe is toughening its stance towards women returning from Islamic State because increased knowledge has shown that they were not merely ‘passive housewives’ but were very much actively involved. Instead of letting the jihadist fighters return to their respective countries, some are advocating a Nuremberg-style trial to bring them to justice. A useful starting point is the work by the Nuremberg Academy, which issued a special publication entitled Islam and International Criminal Law and Justice to examine ‘the universality of the Nuremberg Principles in a globalised world, concentrating in particular on Islamic perspectives and interrogating the relevancy and applicability of the Nuremberg Principles to notions of justice in the Muslim world’.

In the United States the case of Hoda Muthana has received similar attention as that of Begum in Britain. Leaving college in Alabama to join ISIS, Muthana now wants to return. The US, however, will not let her and indicated that it will take away her citizenship. (Or more precisely: the US, after looking into her case, claims she was never a citizen in the first place because she was born in the US to a foreign diplomat. Some of the legal issues are unpacked by Steve Vladeck here.) More generally, we can see a revival of denaturalisation under the Trump administration, with the New York Times asking whether ‘denaturalisation is the next front in the Trump administration’s war on immigration’.

Citizenship deprivation has now also reached Germany, which so far has been very hesitant about denationalisation due to its Nazi past and the practice of stripping Jews of their citizenship before sending them to extermination camps. The German government has agreed to strip dual citizen fighters of Islamic State of their German citizenship in case they take part in future battles as part of ISIS. This is made possible by an expansion of the Citizenship Act so that deprivation powers can be used if someone ‘takes part in combat operations abroad for a terrorist militia’. Maximilian Steinbeis has explained why he hopes the law does not get passed in parliament.

For more academic analyses, the Journal of Immigration Asylum and Nationality Law has made the papers on deprivation of citizenship from a 2014 seminar available for free download.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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