Woman who joined Islamic State cannot return to UK to fight for citizenship, court rules

Shamima Begum left Britain six years ago as a schoolgirl to join Isis in Syria

The UK supreme court today ruled against  Shamima Begum in  a case relating to whether she could return to the UK to appeal the removal of her British citizenship. Photograph: PA/PA Wire

The UK supreme court today ruled against Shamima Begum in a case relating to whether she could return to the UK to appeal the removal of her British citizenship. Photograph: PA/PA Wire


A woman who fled Britain as a schoolgirl to join Islamic State in Syria has failed to restore her British citizenship after the supreme court ruled on Friday she had lost her case.

The judgment in Shamima Begum’s case is a critical – and controversial – test case of the UK policy to strip the citizenship of Britons who went to join Islamic State, also known as Isis, and are being detained by Syrian Kurdish groups without trial.

Lord Reed, the president of the court, said that its judges had decided unanimously to rule in favour of the home secretary and against Begum on all counts before it, meaning the 21-year-old will not be able to re-enter the UK to fight her case in person and will not have her citizenship restored while she is being detained in Syria.

“The supreme court unanimously allows the home secretary’s appeals and dismisses Miss Begun’s cross appeal,” Reed said.

Begum was 15 when she fled east London with two other school friends to join Isis in Syria six years ago. Her UK nationality was removed in 2019, shortly after she was found by a journalist in a prison camp.

Although born and raised in the UK, Begum’s British citizenship was removed by then-home secretary Sajid Javid, who argued she was eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship, the birth country of her parents.

Begum fought that decision and wants to be allowed to return to the UK to pursue her legal challenge in person in a test case about the status of Britons who joined Isis and also had their citizenship revoked.

British law allows the home secretary to remove a person’s British citizenship if doing so would be “conducive to the public good”. However, it is illegal to revoke their nationality if doing so would leave them stateless.

A two-day hearing in the case in November heard Begum was still considered by MI5 as a national security risk because although she had travelled out as a minor, she had “aligned” with the terror group.

Lord Pannick QC, representing Begum, said was unable to put her side of the case properly from al-Roj detention camp where she is held. He told the court she would be at risk of physical harm if she spoke by mobile phone to her British lawyers.

He told the court that the Kurdish authorities in al-Roj camp “do not permit detainees to use their phones”. Those caught, he added, were “placed in isolation, separated from their children and beaten”.

Last July, the court of appeal unexpectedly ruled that Begum, who is being held by the Syrian Kurds, could return home to challenge the British government.

Friday’s ruling followed a Home Office decision to appeal against that decision – although supreme court judges were also considering her citizenship case if they decided not to allow her to return to the UK.

In a 47-page ruling, the supreme court said the court of appeal had been wrong to conclude that Begum should be allowed to enter the UK and fight her case in person by substituting its own reasoning in place of the home secretary.

Britain’s highest court also concluded that the court of appeal had mistakenly believed that “when an individual’s right to have a fair hearing of an appeal came into conflict with the requirements of national security, her right to a fair hearing must prevail”.

But it held out one remaining hope for Begum, concluding the only fair response was for any final appeal by Begum against the decision to revoke her British citizenship to be held over until “Begum is in a position to play an effective part in it without the safety of the public being compromised” - although it was unclear when that would be the case.

“That is not a perfect solution, as it is not known how long it may be before that is possible,” the judgment said.

As a teenager, Begum was married to an Isis fighter while she was embroiled in the Syrian conflict and had three children, all of whom have since died. As Isis was defeated, she was captured by the Syrian Kurds in 2019 and has been in their detention ever since at camps whose condition has been described as “dire”. – Guardian