The treatment of Shamima Begum should worry us all

The government played fast and lose with fundamental rights, endangering children's lives in the process, argues Anita Hassan.

March 13, 2019 · 6 min read
A refugee camp in Syria. Photo by IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

If the deceased children of Daesh fighters could choose their parents, they might’ve been alive today. Jarrah, a British newborn, was one such infant. Born in a Syrian refugee camp, the baby slowly deteriorated in the arms of his mother, Shamima Begum. Shamima, who’d already watched her two British babies die in Syria from illness, warned the UK of Jarrah’s equal fate. She asked to return to the UK, citing Jarrah’s welfare as her main reason. The UK met Shamima’s desperate call by taking away her citizenship. The decision was widely supported, with undue focus placed on her ‘lack of remorse’ in a short interview clip filmed just hours after Jarrah’s birth and in difficult circumstances. No efforts were made to rescue Jarrah – who the UK had duties to protect according to domestic and international laws. On 10 March, Jeremy Hunt said, “it wasn’t possible” to rescue Jarrah, because it wasn’t safe to send British officials into a “war zone”.

Without denying Syria’s unstable and critical situation, it’s worthy to note that British journalists safely accessed Shamima and Jarrah, returning in one piece to edit and broadcast their reports. It’s unclear why government officials with training, protections and a sophisticated intelligence-led strategy, would be any less safe than the press.

Reportedly cold, fragile and deprived of effective access to adequate medicine – the “blue” and “cold” baby developed fatal lung complications. Whilst the world hotly, academically and often recklessly debated the decision to deprive Shamima of her citizenship; Jarrah, wrapped up in a blanket before our very eyes, gradually died under our watch.

Jarrah’s is not the only infant death. Two thirds of at least 100 deaths in the area were under five, according to the International Rescue Committee. The main causes were hypothermia and malnutrition. Hunt indicated the UK is exploring options for removing British children from Syria. Time will tell if this is just lip-service, but time is exactly what children in the camp don’t have. This doubles down on previous policies which have shown contempt for refugees and migrants. Seemingly, if a child is in a refugee camp, their life is of least priority. Those are not the actions of a humane government who can be trusted to run our society.

What about child protection?

The arbitrary decision was backed by the strong public opinion that Shamima should stay in Syria since she “made her bed” there. This is arguably wrong in law. If the then 15 year-old was groomed and lured to Syria by Daesh to join them – she’d be likely to qualify as a human trafficking victim.

It’d be irrelevant that she stepped onto the plane towards her final destination of Raqqa, because a child can’t consent to being trafficked. A child might not even know they’re being trafficked. Worse, they might even have ‘loyal love’ for their trafficker; who might be disguised as a loving husband-to-be.

The UK has duties to prevent children being trafficked and re-trafficked. How and why then did the UK fail to prevent Shamima being radicalised and potentially trafficked, and come to allow Shamima and her two friends who were also children to travel without adult supervision to Syria, where they became child marriage victims? Alarm bells should’ve been ringing, especially because the girls’ close school friend, Sharmeena Begum, left to join Daesh in Syria just two months before, after losing her 33 year-old mother that year to cancer and being groomed by online extremists.

It’s reported that the police wrote a letter addressed to Shamima’s parents informing them about Sharmeena and the risks to their own daughter. The police didn’t directly warn Shamima’s parents. Instead, they handed the said letter to Shamima, the very child they were seeking to monitor.

Human rights must be defended

Daesh’s actions were deplorable, unimaginable, and barbaric. But they didn’t nullify Shamima’s human rights. Nor did they absolve the UK of its legal responsibilities over her and her son. That’s the rule of law. Even the evillest person has enforceable rights. Their universality is precisely what makes them so vital.

Yet, at the point at which I’m writing this, Shamima, a bereaved mother of three at 19, waits in a refugee camp without direct access to any of those rights or consular services. The UK put a 19 year-old victim of child marriage and potentially human trafficking into exile. It did so without any effective due process – there was no trial, and Shamima didn’t have any effective opportunity to challenge any incriminating evidence. It’s also unclear what consideration was given to Jarrah’s best interests.  Is it nowadays the case that human rights are only for those who behave well; and in Jarrah’s case, only for those whose parents behave well?

By taking away Shamima’s nationality, the UK undermined the rule of law, and human and children’s rights. But the irresponsible and arbitrary decision is entirely consistent with its  record. Within six months of becoming Home Secretary in 2010, May issued five citizenship revocation notices. In 2017, 104 people were deprived of their citizenship.

This isn’t a stand-alone case. The Windrush scandal made it clear that this government treats the citizenship of BAME Britons as always conditional – a matter of temporary privilege rather than a right and entitlement. And when any government feels it can can dispense with fundamental rights for political convenience, we should all be very, very wary. 

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