Unraveling Nationality Rights: The Shamima Begum Controversy

The UK recently revoked the citizenship of Shamima Begum for national security reasons. While the UK has removed the citizenship of over 460 people since 2006, this case has ruffled some feathers in the international law community and within the UK’s legal system.

The Right to Nationality

International law, across several instruments, has deemed nationality a human right. This means that the states that make up the international community have a collective responsibility to ensure that no one ends up without a nationality, constituting statelessness. This does not mean that a state must accommodate any individual that ends up on its territory.

To have a state’s nationality, the individual must have a certain link to that particular state. This may come from the circumstances of one’s birth or through naturalization. A state may apply Jus Soli, giving nationality to those born on the state’s territory, or it may use Jus Sanguinis, giving race to those born to one or both parents that are nationals of a state. Naturalization links the form later in any way the state may recognize, such as marriage to a national, ownership of property, or length of residence.

Can Nationality be Revoked?

International law sees the revocation of nationality to be a disproportionately harsh punishment. It is only allowed if the race was obtained fraudulently to begin with. Using national security as a ground is only permitted when deporting a stateless person, not for revocation of nationality already given. Most importantly, the cancellation resulting in statelessness is strictly forbidden, instead encouraging the application of national law to deal with such issues.

Nevertheless, it once again becomes apparent how impotent international law is in controlling states, as the states give international law any legitimacy. State sovereignty must be respected for international law to be respected thus, and in such cases, many states choose to veer off the course set by international regulations to serve their purposes, and in our current case study, the UK is doing just that.

What Approach Has the UK Taken?

The UK’s Nationality and Borders Act recognizes the fraudulent acquisition of nationality and national security as valid reasons for the revocation of nationality, provided that the race was given through naturalization. This revocation must also not lead to the individual becoming stateless.

Shamima Begum’s Case

Shamima Begum was a British citizen born on UK soil to Bangladeshi parents. She was a UK national by birth. At 15, Shamima and 2 of her East London school classmates went to Syria and joined ISIS. She returned to the UK four years later after giving birth to three children, all of whom died, her husband was killed, and she was discovered at a Syrian refugee camp. The UK’s home office then denied her entry into the country and revoked her citizenship, deeming her a national security threat and sending her back to Bangladesh, where her parents are from.

The decision was challenged because Begum was not a naturalized citizen, but rather one by birth; she was not a citizen of another state and would end up stateless as a consequence of this decision as she was not an official citizen of Bangladesh which also denied her residence; and that she was a minor when she left the country and that too as a result of human trafficking.

The home office maintains that regardless of whether she was a victim of trafficking, she is now a threat to national security, which cannot be ignored. The UK Supreme Court has denied Begum the ability to appeal the decision.

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