Shamima Begum: How can you lose your citizenship?

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Shamima Begum
Image caption,
Shamima Begum was a teenager when she left the UK to join the Islamic State group

Shamima Begum has lost her appeal against the government's decision to remove her British citizenship and remains barred from returning to the UK.

Ms Begum, now 23, left the country as a teenager to join the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria.

Who is Shamima Begum?

Ms Begum is one of three east London schoolgirls who travelled to Syria in 2015 to support the IS group.

She was born in the UK to parents of Bangladeshi heritage and was 15 when she left.

Her citizenship was stripped on national security grounds in 2019.

What is citizenship?

Citizenship is a legal status.

If someone is a UK citizen they have the legal right to live in the country, and to have access to services such as welfare, education and healthcare. They can also vote.

Citizenship is also an identity, and often forms part of a person's sense of self and belonging.

Some people who are not citizens have the right to live in the UK permanently with many of the same rights.

They are said to have "settled status" or "leave to remain".

How can citizenship be removed?

The government has the power to remove someone's UK citizenship in certain circumstances:

  • It is "for the public good" and would not make them stateless
  • The person obtained citizenship through fraud
  • Their actions could harm UK interests and they could claim citizenship elsewhere

The power has been used against members of proscribed organisations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group, or those who obtained their British citizenship fraudulently.

The person must also be eligible to apply for citizenship in another country. The UK has responsibilities under international law to avoid leaving people stateless.

The Nationality and Borders Act made it easier for the home secretary, in certain circumstances, to remove citizenship without telling the person in question. Such circumstances include national security concerns or if the individual has been prosecuted for a serious crime.

Image source, Tauqir Sharif
Image caption,
Tauqir Sharif worked with a charity called Live Updates From Syria

Tauqir Sharif, an aid worker from Walthamstow, also lost his citizenship for national security reasons. He moved to Syria in 2012 with his wife, and was stripped of his citizenship in 2017.

The Home Office said Mr Sharif had links to a group aligned with al-Qaeda, but he denied the claim, and called the system "unfair" and "racist".

What happened in the Shamima Begum case?

In February 2020, a tribunal ruled that removing Ms Begum's citizenship was lawful because she was "a citizen of Bangladesh by descent", so removing her British nationality wouldn't make her stateless.

Bangladesh said that was not the case, and that she would not be allowed into the country.

Media caption,

Anthony Loyd of the Times describes how he found Shamima Begum in a Syrian refugee camp

In February 2021, the Supreme Court decided that Ms Begum couldn't return to the UK to appeal against the decision.

Lawyers for Ms Begum - who remains in a camp controlled by armed guards in northern Syria -challenged the removal of her citizenship at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).

They argued the decision was unlawful, as it did not consider whether she had been a child victim of trafficking.

On 22 February 2023, the SIAC ruled that while there was a credible case that Ms Begum was a victim of trafficking and sexual exploitation when she went to Syria in 2015, that did not stand in the way of the home secretary stripping her of British citizenship, because she had subsequently become a threat.

The ruling means Ms Begum is still barred from entering the UK. But this may not be the end of the legal challenge - Ms Begum is likely to try to take her case to the Court of Appeal.

How many people have been stripped of their citizenship?

The total figures aren't readily available.

However the Home Office says that between 2010 and 2018, an average of 19 people per year were stripped of their citizenship where it was "conducive to the public good", and an average of 17 people a year because of fraud.

Research by the immigration law website Free Movement found that more than 460 people had their citizenship removed between 2006 and 2020 - 175 for national security reasons, and 289 for fraud.

What about other countries?

US-born citizens can't have their status revoked because citizenship is a birth right guaranteed in the US constitution.

However, naturalised US citizens - that is, people who have immigrated to the US - can be stripped of their nationality for a few reasons, including being members of a proscribed group, and if they obtained their US citizenship through fraud.

In Australia, a person can have their citizenship removed on national security grounds, if they are a dual citizen of another nation.

Citizenship can be removed for treason, disloyalty and other national security reasons in 14 EU states, including Greece, France and Romania. It can also be removed without notice in the Netherlands.

In recent years, the UK has stripped more people of their citizenship than any other country apart from Bahrain, according to a report released by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.