The question on how to deal with foreign jihadis wanting to return to their country of birth has always been a complicated one, and the situation with Shamima Begum has opened fresh discussions on the issue.
Miss Begum is a 19-year-old woman who, after being radicalized online, left her home in Bethnal Green to fight for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2015. She was accompanied by two other girls, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, who made their way to Syria via Turkey. After 4 years under ISIL control, she has decided that she wants to go back to the UK with her child, fearing for its well-being after her first two died. Moreover, she has said she wishes to go back and return to a quiet life. So, what have people said about it?
Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, has expressed concern at the prospect of allowing her return. In an interview with The Times, he remarked that “if you have supported terrorist organizations abroad, then I will not hesitate to prevent your return”. He went on to comment that there are a range of methods that he can pursue to prevent her return, including the Temporary Exclusion Order. This tool would legally bar her entry into the UK until she has agreed to an investigation, monitoring and if required, deradicalization. However, Lord Carlile, a former independent reviewer into terrorist legislation has said that if Begum has not been made a national of any other country, the United Kingdom has an obligation to take her in, as international law makes it illegal to render someone stateless.
Even though she has stated that she has no remorse for her actions and is reportedly unfazed by the sight of beheaded heads in bins, her family has still appealed for leniency. Her brother-in-law, Mohammed Raman, commented “She was so young - I don’t think she had the life experience to make those decisions”. These sentiments have been echoed by members of her own community, like Shakil, a former classmate of Begum, who believes that she should be welcomed home and given protection by the police. Moreover, Amina Mohamed, a housewife in the area, came to the defence of the teenager by asserting that “It wasn’t her decision to go, she was brainwashed”, later adding that “no one can make such a decision when she’s 15”.
Bearing this in mind, how can the government legally proceed? The first option is to allow her return to the UK to be arrested and prosecuted. Although this sounds ideal, it’s not very feasible to prosecute returning jihadis from countries like Syria due to the unavailability of evidence of crimes committed in those countries. Other European countries, such as Netherlands and Belgium have faced similar troubles when prosecuting their citizens that have fought in the jihad. The second path would be for her to be left in Syria, which would likely result in the Syrian Democratic Forces, who control the refugee camp where she currently is, to hand her over to the neighbouring Iraqi forces. This would present a problem to the UK because the Iraqis might sentence her to death, something which the UK opposes. Lastly, the British government could strip her of her British citizenship on the grounds of it being in the interest of the public good. In this case, we would have no obligation to take care of her.
Ultimately, the case for Shamima Begum’s return is based on international law and the appeal from members of her family and her community. Although the former is something that must be bound to, the latter is simply an emotional cry that can be sympathized with, but not treated seriously. The British government must take into account that she does not regret any of her actions, that she has de facto committed treason, whether or not we are willing to waste taxpayers’ money on her trial and if she poses a threat to the British public.