12:24, July 17 87 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-17 12:24:04
Why is this government so eager to strip people like Shamima Begum of their citizenship?

Can the government continue to abdicate responsibility for Brits held in north-east Syria accused of association with Islamic State? The answer is no, according to the court of appeal, which this week ordered the government to return 20-year-old Shamima Begum to the UK so she could properly appeal the stripping of her UK citizenship.

Begum was 15 years old when she left her home in Bethnal Green, east London, and 19 when she was identified in a detention camp in north-east Syria. In the intervening years she had given birth to two children who subsequently died, and was at that time heavily pregnant with a third.

After Begum’s whereabouts were reported, she was swiftly stripped of her nationality by the home secretary. She was notified of the decision in an on-camera interview with ITV shortly after giving birth. Her baby died less than two weeks later.

The court’s decision to allow Begum’s return to the UK is hugely significant for the 15 to 20 British families detained in north-east Syrian prison camps, the majority of whom are women and children, and many of whom were trafficked into Syria and forced into marriage and domestic servitude.

The court indicated the brutal conditions in which Begum is detained give her no chance of fairly and effectively appealing the stripping of her citizenship, which must call into question the position of all other British nationals in this situation. But even before the court’s ruling, it was clear that stripping these people’s citizenships and obstructing their return to the UK was unsafe, unjust and unworkable.

The makeshift desert prisons holding British nationals are breaking at the seams. In recent months nearly 800 foreign prisoners are reported to have escaped. Against this backdrop Kurdish authorities have pleaded with Britain and other countries to take back their prisoners. Should the camps collapse, there is every chance the UK will completely lose track of British prisoners, eliminating any hope of monitoring their movements, or indeed of securing justice for any crimes they may have committed.

Another imminent risk is that the deteriorating security situation may lead Kurdish authorities to transfer British prisoners to another jurisdiction. The most likely destinations would be Syrian territory controlled by the dictator Bashar al-Assad, where British prisoners would likely face torture, disappearance and death; or Iraq, where they would face a similar fate. Both paths end in grave abuses to which the UK is fundamentally opposed; neither presents any prospect of fair or effective justice.

We cannot afford to lose track of British prisoners in Syria, when this will make us less safe and erode any prospect of justice for crimes they may have committed. That is why they need to be repatriated to the UK, where they may face justice in a British court wherever there are charges to answer. Security experts such as the former MI6 director, Richard Barrett, have called for Britons in Syria to be returned. At the same time, the UK’s director of public prosecutions, Max Hill, has made clear Britons returning to the UK could be prosecuted, saying this would happen “in the vast majority of cases”.

Following the court of appeal’s judgment, a spokesperson for the home secretary pledged to apply for permission to appeal. Were permission to be granted, this would set the stage for a supreme court hearing on the government’s citizenship-stripping decisions. A wiser course would be to reflect on the judgment, which notably argued that any risk Begum might pose “could be addressed and managed if she returns to the United Kingdom”.

The government now faces a choice. It can fight for its disintegrating policy against lengthening legal odds, while the camps holding British prisoners edge closer to total collapse. Or it can conduct a much needed reassessment of its approach, in the manner advised by security and law enforcement experts, as well as many of its own MPs.

It was always wrong to suggest the UK could abandon British women, children and men in north-east Syria. The sooner the government accepts this, and changes course, the better for our security and justice interests.

Maya Foa is director of Reprieve, a legal charity that works against grave human rights abuses

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