On 13th February, Anthony Lloyd, a war correspondent chanced upon Shamima Begumat al-Hawl, a refugee camp on the Syrian border. The nineteen-year-old was heavily pregnant and on her own. Her husband was being held at a separate Kurdish-run detention centre. By then, she had already mourned the death of two children, a boy, Jerah, and a girl, Sarayah, and feared for the life of her unborn child. (Since then, she has given birth to another son, who has also died.) Lloyd, sensing his stroke of good luck, began to record her story, identifying her as ‘one of the Bethnal Green Girls.’
Shamima Begum was just 15 years old, when along with two other friends, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, she left London to join ISIS in Syria. Bethnal Green, where Shamima grew up, is a district of East End London, a crowded and not particularly prosperous district predominantly populated by Bangladeshi Muslims. Within three weeks of arriving at Raqqa in northern Syria, the city, terrorist group ISIS had declared as their caliphate, Shamima was married to Yago Riedijk, a Dutch man raised in the affluent neighbourhood of Arnhem, Netherlands. Yago was 23 years old; he’d converted to Islam and joined ISIS as a fighter, and is allegedly implicated in a home-grown terror plot.
What could have motivated Shamima, in 2015, to travel to a war zone? Some clues become evident through the language she uses; she sees Muslim women and children as victims of war, journalists as spies, bombing and beheadings as retribution for violence against Muslims. Her world-view is clouded with distrust of western democracies. We don’t know what Shamima expected to find in the caliphate; a promised safe haven perhaps for Muslims or more likely, it was the foolish rebellion of a fifteen-year-old, groomed by the al-Khansaa group, an all-female religious cult, into believing that she will find love and happiness if she follows them to Raqqa.
When news broke that a disillusioned Shamima wanted to return to the UK, the immediate national mood was one of disgust. Why would she want to return to a country she had so obviously betrayed, a country she despised? There was an outcry not to let her back into Britain. Home Secretary Sajid Javid, made a pledge to do whatever was in his power to strip her of citizenship. A few days later, the Home Office served her family papers informing them that Shamima was no longer a British citizen. International law requires governments to ensure the person has access to another citizenship before stripping them of their current status. Britain assumed Bangladesh, because of her Bangladeshi heritage, would grant her nationality, but Bangladesh said it was under no obligation to do so, and had nothing to do with the girl. In effect, Shamima became stateless, a woman who cannot claim any corner of the earth as her home.
Home is an abstract concept, bound up with our sense of geographical and cultural identity. But citizenship shouldn’t be. If citizenship can be revoked depending on the conduct of the individual than it falls the test of what citizenship means. It becomes a temporary visa. Not a document which enshrines citizens’ rights but a privilege which can be denied depending on whim.
This whole case has larger implications, particularly for the Goans who have travelled to the UK on Portuguese passports. With the possibility of Brexit looming, Goans who work in the UK because they are European Union nationals, will be compelled to apply for British citizenship, if they want to remain in the country. Because Portugal allows for dual citizenship, all of them will also retain their Portuguese citizenship. And as they will travel to India frequently, because that is the only ‘home’ they know, they will also apply for their Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, which means for all purposes, barring few exceptions, they are also quasi-citizens of India.
Although there are huge advantages to being dual nationals, such as the ability to travel without a visa, Shamima Begum’s case shows us, that in times of a crisis, countries can choose not to have any responsibility, hence abandoning the person in trouble. In case, Goans comfort themselves with the thought that, unlike Shamima Begum, they will never join an ISIS camp, and so they need not worry about such things, citizenship can in fact be stripped for any number of reasons. In 2018, the British Home Office stripped an Indian man, convicted of paedophilia, of his UK citizenship. The Home Office has said, “Any British Citizen may be deprived of his or her citizenship if the Secretary of State is satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good.” In 2017, alone, 104 citizenships were revoked. Britain can revoke anyone’s citizenship as long as that person either has acquired or has the potential to acquire another citizenship. With Goans, almost certainly having either a Portuguese nationality or the possibility of reclaiming their Indian citizenship, makes them all the more vulnerable to becoming nobody’s child, in the end.
What Shamima Begum’s case has shown us is that citizenship of a country depends entirely on the whims of the government in power. A hostile government can make life difficult to non-native citizens. But perhaps, what is even more disturbing, is what most non-white citizens have always feared, that they are only second-class citizens, whose lives can fall prey to political systems and populist opinions.
(The writer is the author of Goan Pioneers of East Africa)