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Without the right to have rights. The case of Ms Shamima Begum, a victim of child- trafficking made stateless by the UK government.
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After the territorial defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on March 23 2019, thousands of women and children who were associated with ISIS have been interned and detained in various camps in northeast Syria, under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military wing of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

The present article examines the case of Ms Shamima Begum, a British teenager who, in 2015, was groomed and trafficked to Syria to marry an ISIS fighter. In February 2019, Ms Begum was found in the al Roj camp and successively stripped of her British nationality by the then home secretary, Sajid Javid, on the grounds that she represented a terror threat to the UK. Ms Begum does not hold any other nationality, and she has been made de jure stateless by her own country, representing the first case of this sort, and as such unprecedented, in British history.

1. The story of Ms Shamima Begum.

I met Ms Shamima Begum in 2006 when she was very young, while I was conducting my field work with Islamist activists in the UK.

I met her at her family home in Bethnal Green (East London), where she lived with her immediate family and a young cousin, my interviewee, who was by then a member of al Ghurabaa, a radical Islamist party banned in July 2006, under the Second Terror Act.

It had been quite common for me to conduct interviews at the interviewees’ family homes; from a methodological point of view, it is a familiar environment where the ensuing interviews and conversations can proceed in a relaxed manner, with the opportunity to observe the subjects of study interactions within the family unit.

What has never happened during my five years of field work is that a child had asked to participate in the conversation by asking questions about Islamism as a concept and about practices of anti-Muslim racism in the UK. Her mother did not allow Shamima to sit with her cousin and me during the interview and decided to usher her out of the room by claiming that “those conversations and those things are not for girls like you”.

After the end of the interview, I left her house with a fond memory of her family’s kindness and hospitality; above all, her great curiosity and very inquisitive eyes stayed with me for a long time. I then reflected upon the fact that young girls and children like Shamima experience and learn of practices of sexism first and foremost within the quiet domesticity of their family life, where the male members (like Shamima’s cousin) could pursue political passions and activism, that were considered unsuitable for women and young girls. I also hypothesised that later on in her life, her experience of the national institutions and the civil society in the UK would have provided her with other kinds of challenges and levels of discrimination that, coupled with those within her private sphere, would have positioned Ms Begum at the inconvenient intersection of two kinds of racisms: a sexual one and an anti-Muslim one.

When I learned that Shamima left London to join ISIS, I also speculated that, as a minor, she must have struggled to deal with the experience of the intersectionality of discriminations without them being acknowledged and addressed by her family circle and by representatives of the national institutions. It is possible that, given her young age and the negligent lack of guidance from adults in different capacities, she must have been unable to find a better solution for them than the disruptive one she was lured, deceived and coerced into embracing, aged 15.

In 2015, Shamima, together with two of her friends, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase, both 16 years old, had left the UK, flying to Turkey first to reach Syria to join ISIS.

I felt extremely worried about her and surprised that her relatives, her school teachers and also the UK authorities had been incapable of preventing her and her school friends (three minors) from leaving the country to join a terrorist group. I also formulated two considerations: first, by joining ISIS, Ms Begum had declared (symbolically) to her family that women stay in the rooms when politics is discussed; second, due to her very young age and possibly to her high level of frustration, she did not consider that she was choosing the most dangerous way of implementing a feminist agenda of Islamism and that what had been presented, by unscrupulous recruiters, as a path to liberation (ISIS membership) would have turned into a pernicious form of personal subjugation.

At the beginning of 2019, Ms Begum was found by a Times journalist in a refugee camp in northeast Syria, pregnant with her third child after having lost her other two children due to the camp’s unsanitary conditions and lack of aid and primary health care.

In February 2019, the UK Home Office and the then home secretary Sajid Javid stripped Ms Begum of her British citizenship on the grounds that she constituted a risk to national security, leaving her stateless, as Ms Begum did not hold any other nationality. According to the British Nationality Act (2014), the Home Office can revoke British nationality on various grounds. Between 2018 and 2019, 250 people have been stripped of citizenship by the UK government. Although the Home Office refused to identify how many of these people were related to ISIS and how many of them were minors, it is known that all of them were members of a minority group, that none of them held dual English and Israeli passports, and none of them had been made stateless as they held double nationality.

She has also been refused entry into the UK to stand trial and appeal against the UK Home Office's decision to denationalise her. In February 2021, even the UK’s highest court denied her bid to return home to contest the deprivation.

In the meanwhile, she lost her third child, Jarrah, due to a severe lung infection contracted in the camp, where preventable diseases and curable infections become fatal for infants.

2. A real terror threat?

Ms Begum has been interviewed several times by journalists and documentarists. What emerged from her account of her life under ISIS is that she did not become a wife by choice, but she was coerced into joining ISIS, into marrying a foreign fighter and into witnessing people being violated, tortured and decapitated, causing her enormous distress and the development of a severe form of PTSD. The majority of studies on child soldiers reveal that female child soldiers and those abducted to marry fighters (like Shamima) had a greater severity of psychosocial problems than did male child soldiers, with one study identifying that female child soldiers were 6.8 times more likely to have PSTD than males. She also declared that she would have done everything to “one day come back home to the UK”, as they promised her if she would have complied with what was asked of her.

In this regard, the political decision taken in 2019 by the Home Office to strip her of her nationality, to make her stateless without any sort of protection by adducing reasons for the potential threat that her presence in the UK could pose to the national security, becomes difficult to understand and above all to justify. Her treatment also dangerously overlooks the fact that ISIS child soldiers, as she was biographically when she travelled to Syria, can also be trafficked, and thus, they are victims of terror fighters rather than their supporters or loyal followers.

In Ms Begum’s case, it is a matter of public record that she was recruited online by a well-known female ISIS recruiter before she went to Raqqa in 2015 at the age of 15. Upon her arrival, she was put in a house for young women and married off to an adult Dutch fighter within one week. She was a child bride. When asked during a BBC interview about her involvement in terror plans and attacks under the ISIS regime, she replied candidly and, tragically in a way, that the only activity she was concentrated on was “to keep her children alive and to survive under ISIS regime”.

From a legal point of view, it should not be difficult to establish that Ms Begum’s case was one of human trafficking. If ISIS recruited and transported her with the specific purpose of exploiting and abusing her, this means that she was trafficked and treated abusively. Unlike with adult victims, the means by which it happened, such as grooming, do not need to be proven as a minor cannot ever consent to their exploitation even if they seem to have agreed to travel to a terrorist organisation.

The UK media have instead rushed malignantly to label Ms Begum as an “ISIS bride”, “terror wife”, and “runaway teen” by ignoring the fact that at 15, Ms Begum could not legally make any choice, such as travelling to Syria and getting married. Her condition was one of extreme vulnerability that would have required protection by the UK official authorities rather than punishment, de-nationalisation and possibly racial profiling.

Similarly, the court that in 2021 upheld revoking her citizenship described the child recruit of ISIS as a woman who was in her situation as a “result of her own choices” rather than highlighting the fact that the UK government’s failure to prevent, investigate and remediate her trafficking (through repatriation), has led to her being stranded and stateless in northeast Syria in conditions that the UN experts call “squalid and untenable”.

What sets a dangerous precedent in terms of violation of human rights is that governments do not seem to investigate whether trafficking occurred in ISIS international recruitment and under the caliphate itself. The common counter-argument that it is extremely difficult to collect evidence abroad, specifically in a geographical area like northern Syria afflicted by an ongoing civil war, does not apply to Ms Begum's case, as some evidence of her initial recruitment can be readily found within her home country’s jurisdiction. In this regard, her prompt repatriation, including interviewing her, could have helped collect more evidence of ISIS trafficking strategies, and it could have potentially saved a larger number of victims of trafficking. Unfortunately, for countries grappling with how to deal with their citizens who are allegedly linked to ISIS, whether someone is trafficked and can be repatriated seems to depend on who it is that is being exploited.

In 2002, three members of the radical Islamist party Hizb ut Tahrir UK (HT), British citizens Maajid Nawaz (23), Reza Pankhurst (26) and Ian Nisbet (27), were arrested in Egypt while canvassing for HT, a party outlawed in Egypt as a terrorist party and only recently banned in the UK as an extremist party. Its political programme is based on the idea that the only legitimate form of government for Muslims is the caliphate; HT members' activity is devoted to the institution of a caliphate government in the Middle East by overturning the “illegitimate secular regimes”. HT's manifesto is very similar to that of ISIS, although it is unclear whether HT would use terrorist attacks to achieve its political goals. Maajid, Reza and Ian were sentenced to prison in Egypt, charged with attempting to overthrow the state and preparing terrorist activity. The British government led by Tony Blair, who had fully embraced ideologically and politically the War on Terror, together with Amnesty International, conducted a complicated and prolonged diplomatic negotiation with the Egyptian authorities for their release: successfully, after four years, in March 2006 Maajid, Reza and Ian returned home to the UK. They were welcomed back to the UK as “heroes and victims” of a “Middle Eastern dictatorship and anti-democratic government.” The British public and the media strongly supported their release from prison, and their return home to the UK was hailed as a diplomatic victory and a political success of a democratic system (the UK) that “upholds the rule of law and protects human rights”. As of December 2023, Reza and Ian were still members of the HT UK executive committee, while Mr Nawaz has recused the party on the grounds that it is a radical anti-democratic party whose political activity contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims in the UK. In his famous book Radical (2012), he claims that, as a young British teenager, he was groomed and radicalised by some members of HT and publicly warns of the risks that HT political practice could pose to national security.

By comparing the stories of the three (adult) radical Islamists and the support they received from the British authorities and the public after their imprisonment in Egypt with the story and the ongoing imprisonment of Ms Begum, whose rights have been taken away due to a coerced choice she made when she was a minor, it is reasonable to argue that Shamima as a young woman seemed to have been twice the victim of widespread practices of sexism and racism, in the UK (as well as under ISIS); it is also possible to argue that the definition of terrorism in relation to an event, and the related representation of victimhood in relation to a normative subject of rights are intrinsically political choices, depending on who it is that is being allegedly terrorising, and who it is that is being terrorised and victimised.

3. When victims’ rights are violated by a democratic state.

In 2021, in Newcastle (UK), the public authorities managed to successfully prosecute a sex trafficking gang whose victims, young Eastern European women, were described as “vulnerable preys of an organised, cynical systematic organisation”. This condemnation of sexual exploitation should have been applied to Ms Begum’s case, and yet the UK Home Office, rather than supporting and protecting Ms Begum as a child who was groomed online by a criminal group known for its predation, has decided to deny her the rights to have rights, including rights to repatriation, rehabilitation, recovery and reintegration.

The key to anti-trafficking frameworks is that trafficked persons are recognised first and foremost as rights holders, including by having a right to remedy for the government’s failure to exercise due diligence to prevent and investigate their being trafficked abroad to proscribed groups. In the context of terrorism, as in the case of Ms Begum, the identification of victims of trafficking implies that there are a certain set of guarantees that are designed precisely to keep their rights as trafficked persons intact in situations of forced criminality.

Trafficked persons are often forced to commit crimes linked to their trafficking, such as undocumented labour or sex work; for this reason, the EU Anti-Trafficking Directive (2005) and the anti-slavery protection under British law agree that trafficking victims should not be held liable “under criminal, civil or administrative laws” for unlawful activities that are either a direct consequence of (for adult victims ) or “related to” (for child victims) having being trafficked; above all, this guarantee of non-punishment should apply “regardless of the gravity or seriousness of the offence committed” (Article 82 (2)). In relation to child recruits to terrorist groups like ISIS, the CRC, its additional protocols and the ILO Convention 182 require that their involvement in “criminal activities shall not undermine their status as both a child and a victim or their related rights to special protection”.

The decision to strip Ms Begum of her citizenship by making her de jure stateless and more vulnerable to future abuses is a sanction that violates the non-punishment guarantee for ISIS child recruits and for ISIS recruits who were trafficked.

In February 2023, the Special Immigration Appeal Commission (SIAC) decided to uphold Javid’s ruling and although it had acknowledged that there was credible suspicion that Ms Begum “was recruited, transferred and then harboured for the purpose of sexual exploitation”, that was “insufficient” for the commission to deem the home secretary’s decision unlawful, in its ruling. The Home Office has variously rejected the claim of trafficking and forced recruitment in relation to Ms Begum’s case on national security and political grounds; the argument proposed is that the fact that a person may have been manipulated “does not mean they cannot be a terrorist risk”. “The secretary of state was well aware of the possibility that she may have been manipulated or radicalised prior to her travel. The only question which, therefore remained was what weight to attribute to these factors. That was a matter for the secretary of state”, claimed Sir James Eadie KC in a written submission for the Home Office.

What the home secretary’s decision appears to have ignored is that his decision has resulted in a form of double punishment: unwarranted sanctions against trafficking victims in situations when such penalties are on their terms also independently antithetical to human rights, by denying the human rights of those who are and were once victims of terrorism and trafficking.

Politics and antagonism towards those associated with proscribed groups and terrorist organisations should never override the countries' obligations under human rights and anti-trafficking laws to support the rehabilitation of ISIS victims.

4. Conclusion: the endless cycle of violence.

Besides a legal standpoint, there is also a long-term security consideration that the British government appeared to have neglected in relation to Ms Begum’s case.

My long ethnographic work with radical Islamists in the UK and the analysis of the relative data have revealed that the process of radicalisation among young people and young activists occurred primarily socially before assuming any ideological character. Only later in their lives did the Islamists interviewed decide to embrace a radical ideology that seemed to make sense of their daily struggles. For a young man like Khuram Butt, guilty of the 2017 London Bridge terror attack, the decision to embrace violence should be considered as a consequence of his feelings of humiliation, his experience of discrimination and his desire for revenge rather than the product of a specific theological or ideological discourse.

Based on my numerous conversations with Mr Khuram Butt, I argue that what pushed him to choose violence over peaceful political means was the firm belief that the society he lived in was so corrupt that it legitimated and justified the discrimination and forms of injustice he had experienced as a Muslim. Khuram felt that the social and institutional contexts were unable or unwilling to provide reparative justice for the wrongs he had suffered.

In relation to Ms Begum and her tragic life story, it is undeniable that she feels—as she declared during an interview—victimised as a woman and as a Muslim, trafficked, deprived of any rights as a stateless person and above all of the possibility of pursuing a programme of rehabilitation for a flourishing life: many wrongs and injustices appear to have landmarked her young life experience.

To a certain extent, she might consider that the Islamist propaganda she fell for before being trafficked to Syria, which depicted Britain as an anti-Muslim country, where Muslims and their Muslimness must be eradicated, where Muslims were constant victims of violations and abuses, was not totally unfounded in light of her life events.

Ms Begum and many other Muslim children I met during my fieldwork, who shared their personal experience of racism and discrimination in the UK, could read in the Home Office's decision to denationalise ISIS child soldiers like Shamima the confirmation of “belonging to a different human race with a marker of injustice”.

It is also easy to envision, based on my ethnographical experience, that cases like Ms Begum’s can be masterfully capitalised by eloquent Islamist leaders in order to galvanise their acolytes towards political plans of revenge and violence in the UK as well as in the camps where young people like Shamima are detained illegally, against the tenets of international humanitarian laws and those of the Convention of the Right of the Child.

It is well known that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi was trained and schooled in Camp Bucca, an untenable and inhumane living arrangement where radical and violent choices must have appeared to be the most reasonable and expeditious.

What those considerations could suggest is that the circle of violence and insecurity within the social fabric thrive primarily on injustice and lack of reparative justice for victims like Shamima. Short-term security policies like those of de-nationalisation would not make a country and a society more secure and free from terrorism; quite the opposite, these policies contribute to making a country more vulnerable to future disruptions of democratic life and to the spectre of violence.

In early 2023, the UN Secretary General’s report on the activities of the UN system in implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy highlighted that “advancing the victims of sexual and gender-based violence agenda should remain at the core of the efforts of the UN and Member states to counter-terrorism” (UN, 2023). Taking into account victims' needs in the fight against terrorism could indeed be beneficial not only to victims but also to states’ efforts to combat terrorism. The Home Office should have adopted a victim-centric approach in dealing with ISIS forced recruit cases like Ms Begum’s, who was a minor when she was trafficked to Syria and forcibly married to a foreign terrorist fighter. What has happened as a result of the Home Office's myopic choice of denationalising Ms Begum is her secondary victimisation and the loss of a relevant possibility to provide an effective counter-narrative to that of terrorist groups like ISIS, whose affiliates use, skilfully, cases of domestic injustice to recruit young people. The British government could have engaged Ms Begum in the fight against terrorism by sharing her story as a basis to trigger public discussion on human rights, the rule of law and democratic values, aiming at fostering citizens resistant to terrorism recruitment. Her illegal detention in a camp in Syria and her condition as a stateless person (not to mention her traumatic experience of being a victim of gender-based violence committed by terrorists) make her rehabilitation impossible, against what the international humanitarian laws and Security Council Resolutions oblige its member states to do. In addition to that, her life story could become a tragic case of an endless cycle of gender-based violence and discrimination, where both an official government (the UK) and a terrorist group (ISIS) paradoxically seemed to have acted jointly.

Dr. Danila Genovese has been researching on Islamism, Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, Critical Terrorism Studies and Animal Ethics since 2006. After completing her PhD in Social Science at the University of Westminster, London, she held several research and teaching positions on Critical Terrorism Studies and Critical Race theory in the UK and in Italy. She is the author of many peer-reviewed academic articles and book chapters.


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