Whose responsibility are returning family members of IS-fighters?

Updated: Apr 5

In February 2015, fifteen-year-old Shamima Begum and two of her classmates boarded a flight to Turkey and, from there, travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS) at a time when the terrorist organisation was at the height of its power. Upon arrival in Raqqa, the IS headquarters at the time, Ms. Begum married a Dutch IS fighter. Ms. Begum lived under IS rule for over three years, until the organisation’s decline pushed her to flee. In February 2019, she was found, nine months pregnant, in a Syrian refugee camp. The baby later died of pneumonia; this was Ms. Begum’s third child to pass away since her arrival in Syria. Whilst still pregnant, Ms. Begum had pleaded to be allowed to return to the UK but then Home Secretary Sajid Javid opposed bringing Ms. Begum back and stripped her of her British citizenship. According to UK nationality law, an individual can have their citizenship stripped by the Home Secretary (the Secretary of State for the purposes of the legislation) in three circumstances. One is pragmatic, namely if the citizenship was obtained through fraud. The two others are more ambiguous, namely where, if the individual is a British citizen by birth, cancelling citizenship is “conducive to the public good” or, if the individual gained British citizenship through naturalisation, where cancelling citizenship is “conducive to the public good” because the individual’s actions are “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom, any of the Islands, or any British overseas territory”.


Begum and two other teenage girls left their homes in Bethnal Green, London, to join IS in Syria

There is, however, a caveat to this sweeping power to deprive individuals of their citizenship. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to a nationality, and that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality. The British Nationality Act 1981 confirms that a person who is British by birth can only be stripped of their British citizenship if they would not become stateless as a result of the deprivation. As such, as she was born in Britain, depriving Ms. Begum of her nationality is only legal if doing so does not leave her stateless.

Ms Begum challenged the Home Secretary’s decision to revoke her citizenship on that basis. Her challenge to the decision made international headlines. She argued that as she was born in Britain and had no other nationality, taking her British citizenship away would render her stateless. Then, an initial