By Julija Sardelić

What does being British mean to you? Democracy? Freedom of speech? Rights for women? Rights for homosexuals?” These were the questions BBC Middle East correspondent Quentin Sommervile was asking Shamima Begum, a so-called ‘jihadi bride’, in an interview from a Syrian refugee camp. She replied, in an emotionally bland manner, that she agreed with what the journalist stated as British values.

However, in the heated debates that followed, a number of public figures in the UK were not convinced that she truly felt remorse about joining Daesh (Islamic State), but rather that she only wanted to return to the UK because the caliphate had been defeated. Broader UK public opinion, according to some polls, suggested that she should be stripped of her citizenship and not allowed back into the UK. Tabloid newspapers even went so far as to suggest that the only thing that divided Britons are unanimous about is that Shamima Begum is a security threat, and that being stripped of citizenship is a just punishment.

Shamima Begum’s case prompts larger questions: does stripping someone of citizenship, or more broadly denying someone access to citizenship, lead to justice and security? What do we actually know about how citizenship-stripping and denying access to citizenship affect both the people as well as the countries in question?

The UK is far from being the only country in favour of denaturalising citizens perceived as a security threat: countries such as the US, Netherlands, Germany, and Australia have all been introducing or advocating for legislation that would make it easier to strip citizenship from naturalised citizens who have dual nationality and can be seen as a security threat.

But Shamima Begum’s case was unique because from a Daesh poster girl, she was transformed into the citizenship-stripping poster girl. The UK Home Secretary decided to strip her UK citizenship, justifying his move with the interpretation of the British Nationality Act, which allows revoking of citizenship if it is “conducive to the public good” and if there is a justifiable belief that naturalisation would not leave the person stateless. As Devyani Prabhat, Reader in Law from University of Bristol points out,  here it was presumed that she could access Bangladeshi citizenship. There was no discussion about the prospect that Bangladesh could, with the same logic, also denationalise her, given that she is a dual citizen. Indeed, Bangladeshi authorities did deny that she was their citizen.

Shamima Begum’s case therefore took citizenship-stripping to a new level: she was born as a UK citizen and citizenship-stripping left her stateless. This was not simply a denaturalisation of a naturalised citizen, but certainly a denationalisation of a British born citizen.

Shamima Begum’s motives for fleeing the UK and joining Daesh remain a matter of speculation. Yet the following is clear: as much as she failed her state, her state also failed her. The Home Secretary claimed that her child will remain a UK citizen as they are bound to protect the children. However, as Aoife Daly, Deputy Director of the European Children’s Rights Unit (University of Liverpool), argues, there is very little attention paid to the fact that Shamima was legally a child herself and that she was groomed to become an ‘IS bride’.

As many comments from experts across a broad political spectrum have agreed, this case shows that naturalised citizens and even citizens by birth of foreign descent were more likely to be stripped of citizenship and they could never be fully equal citizens to those who are seen as the ‘traditional settlers’. From the available data it seems that the ‘white converts’, who joined Daesh or other terrorist groups are getting a different treatment in their states.

For example, there was no public discussion of whether Samantha Lewthwaite, white widow of the 7/7 bomber, should be stripped of citizenship, despite facing serious charges of terrorism and potentially having dual UK/Irish citizenship. Similarly, Dutch-born Begum’s husband Yago Riedijk, was sentenced in absence to six years in prison and faces more charges upon returning to the Netherlands, but citizenship-stripping was off the table. And in New Zealand, Mark Taylor – dubbed the Bumbling Jihadi – was renounced by his family and the New Zealand government decided not to assist with his return from Syria. However, should he be able to enter the New Zealand Embassy in Turkey, he would receive assistance to return and also stand trial in New Zealand. Again, citizen-stripping was off the table.

As Matthew Gibney, Professor at the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre, states: denaturalisation could be equalised with the notion of civic death, which means “the severing of the ties of responsibility between the state and its citizen”. As the international order currently stands, it is states who protect the different rights of individuals. Therefore, becoming stateless in most cases means becoming rightless, or in the famous words of Hannah Arendt, without citizenship one does not have the “right to have rights”.

Gibney also shows that denationalisation is not a recent invention, but has been present throughout history: perhaps the most notable case was the denationalisation of minority groups such as Jews and Roma under the Nazi-era 1935 Reich Nationality Law. It was only when these minority groups faced their civic death, that the concentration camps were introduced, as shown by Hannah Arendt.

In more recent history, countries around the globe used more subtle ways to deny access to citizenship, mainly to groups of unwanted minorities. As the 2017 UNHCR Report shows, more than 75% of the world’s stateless populations belong to minorities, a large number of them born on the territory where they are denied citizenship.

For example, after the disintegration of Czechoslovakia in 1993, a number of residents on Czech territory had to naturalise to become citizens where they (in many cases) lived their whole lives as they were considered Slovak citizens. The conditions for naturalisation seemed very neutral: a five-year residence requirement and a clean criminal record. Nevertheless up to 25,000 Roma ended up having difficulties in accessing Czech citizenship. The reasons for this were that many Roma were not properly registered in Czech territory after being relocated by the Socialist government, and as they lost their jobs in the factory closures in the post-socialist transition, some committed petty crimes. An illustrative case is that of Romani man L’udovit Gorej who, because of stealing four Euros worth of sugar beets, could not naturalise as a Czech citizen and faced deportation to Slovakia. As these measures disproportionally affected Roma, the Czech government found itself under the fierce criticism of human rights activists, and lifted these requirements for the naturalisation of former Czechoslovak citizens.

Another case where minority citizens were turned into aliens with a legal decree happened in the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic used to be based on ius soli, which means all born on the country’s territory were automatically Dominican citizens, except in the case of families of foreign diplomats, who were considered to be in transit. However, in 2013, the Dominican constitutional court re-interpreted the ius soli principle so all the descendants of those who did not have regularised residence from 1929 were now considered to be ‘in transit’ and not eligible for citizenship. With this decision, around 200,000 Dominican citizens of Haitian descent were retroactively stripped of their citizenship. One of the reasons for this decision was increasing racist sentiments towards black Haitians, who were blamed for growing criminal activity in the country and for being a drain on social welfare systems. Although they were left stateless, this decision was argued to be justified, on the grounds that they were seen as able to return to the Haitian side of the island, which was in reality was not the case.

Another case of en masse citizenship-stripping in the recent period happened in Myanmar. Rohingya, largely a Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have been dubbed as the “world’s most persecuted minority”. More than one million Rohingya individuals faced difficulties in accessing their Burmese citizenship when they were not recognised as one of the national races in Myanmar. The shift in discourse that pronounced them as aliens coming from Bangladesh was accompanied by conflicts that left most Rohingya either internally displaced in Myanmar or refugees in the neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh.

One might argue that these three cases of en masse minority statelessness are far away from the individual cases of citizenship-stripping that liberal democracies are grappling with at the moment. An argument might be made that while collective cases of denationalisation cannot be justified, in the case of individuals who joined groups identified as terrorist it can be justified, because these are unique cases that serve justice and the security of the states, and hence the public good.

However, the question is: who draws the line among such cases? Even these individual cases have shown it is only some individuals who are stripped of citizenship as a form of punishment, while others are not.

Citizenship-stripping severs the link between an individual and the state in an arbitrary manner, without a trial. On the other hand, citizenship-stripping does not produce arbitrary results: it is members of stigmatised minorities who predominantly end up as stateless, which signals that they were unequal citizens in the first place, according to Gibney.

Creation of inequalities among citizens, in my strong view, is not just nor does it strengthen security of the country, but it can contribute to exactly the opposite. While writing this piece, Begum’s baby died just after his mother was stripped of citizenship.


Dr. Julija Sardelić is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Leuven’s International and European Studies (LINES), Belgium.