Since her discovery in a Syrian refugee camp in early 2019, the case of Shamima Begum has become firmly embedded in public discourse. Ms Begum’s plight captured the nation’s attention because we were confronted with a question we were yet to answer: what do we do with British citizens who have travelled to Syria to support ISIS? Should we repatriate these citizens, prosecute them in our own country and place them in integration programs, or should we let them pay for the consequences of their actions abroad? To complicate matters further, Ms Begum was heavily pregnant, living in squalid conditions and had travelled to Syria at just 15 years of age. This repatriation question would stoke challenging debates about security threats, citizenship and the fault lines between personal and state responsibility, rendering the case unresolved almost two years on.
Ms Begum’s pregnancy meant that the Home Office were pressed for a decision on the future of her and her child, legally a British citizen. Backed strongly by public opinion and cross-party support, Sajid Javid decided to strip Ms Begum of her citizenship and sealed the fate of her newborn, who died in infancy. Despite there being support for repatriating Ms Begum and her child, the general sense was that the taxpayer’s money should not be spent rescuing someone who had turned their back on this country.
Right-leaning media outlets emphasised Ms Begum’s personal responsibility in joining a cultish group guilty of genocide, that she still held radical Islamist belief and had showed little remorse for her supposed ‘betrayal’ of Britain. Left-facing media focused on the state’s failure to safeguard her, that she had been a teenage victim of online grooming and was no doubt traumatised by living in a warzone and losing her three children.
Betrayal and victimhood narratives have some contextual importance but they fail to directly address an overarching discussion: does repatriating Shamima Begum threaten the welfare of British citizens? The difficulty in answering this question, given the numerous considerations particular to her case which muddy the waters of accountability, perhaps explains why her situation has become so prominent in mainstream media. Rarely did the media engage in the difficult and nuanced debates concerning security, citizenship laws and prosecution which could lead to effective and clear bipartisan policy solutions.
Currently, Ms Begum has a right to appeal the decision to have her citizenship revoked, and will most likely return to the UK to make her case. The outcome of her legal battle is unclear, but the UK government has insisted that it will not lend a hand in bringing her home, sticking to their policy of no repatriation. The UK government isn’t the only state taking this hard-line response to returning foreign fighters: Australia, Israel, Switzerland and Denmark have all taken steps to strip their nationals of citizenship and have attempted to refuse re-entry. However, other states such as Japan, Italy, Bosnia and South Korea actively repatriate any citizen who has gone to join ISIS. In fact, there are varying degrees of repatriation adopted by different states: some repatriate women and children (Germany, Norway); some only children (Finland, Belgium); some only orphans (UK, Australia). The majority of states allow the return of foreign fighters (to be prosecuted upon return) but do not actively repatriate, and the hard-line states who have moved to block return are finding this difficult due to precedents in international law,as elucidated by Ms Begum’s drawn-out legal case.
The lack of international consistency on repatriation policy has been a headache for those in Turkey, Syria and Iraq attempting to retain a semblance of order. However, there is mounting pressure on European governments to reconsider their strategy. President Trump, who initially moved to strip US citizens of a right to return, reversed his decision and has now demanded that other states take responsibility for their foreign fighters. Turkish interior minister Süleyman Soluyu initiated a program of repatriation of ISIS fighters to western countries, stating that Turkey was “not a hotel” for foreign terrorists. While Turkey’s move is unsurprising given the security implications of harbouring ISIS fighters and the instability of Kurdish and SDF forces maintaining camps near its borders, America’s policy move was staggering given Trump’s desire to pull out from this conflict zone. However, Trump’s decision can be explained via the same term – security. The US government’s policy to repatriate foreign fighters is motivated by the notion that this will be most effective in preventing a future ISIS resurgence.
Restrictions against ISIS returnees are motivated ubiquitously by the justified belief that these individuals represent a live national security threat. Regardless of one’s politics, it is axiomatic that the state, to the best of its ability, must ensure the safety of its citizens. This is an insurmountable practical issue that therefore ought to be the central to this debate: can a state ensure the safety of its citizens by leaving their foreign fighters abroad, or by bringing them home? The initial concern with bringing a foreign fighter home is that they will engage in violence-breeding activities, be it terrorism or radicalisation. This concern is arguably not mitigated by prosecution, as radicalisation could occur in prisons, and in addition many of these individuals, such as ISIS brides, would eventually be released. Moreover, conviction rates are low for returnees due to the difficulty of gathering evidence for crimes committed in Syria, and some states lack the relevant legislation to try certain individuals to begin with. Full surveillance of returnees who remain free and subjecting them to integration/deradicalisation programs would be non-negotiable, however that would ask much of our already stretched security forces.
Despite the incredibly challenging security and budget implications of returning foreign fighters to the UK, many experts would argue that the consequences of leaving these fighters abroad are less palatable. Their argument hinges on the notion of control: Syria and Iraq are unstable areas, and leaving our foreign fighters there offers them an opportunity to radicalise and remobilise outside of our control. Escapes from prisons and refugee camps under SDF or Kurdish jurisdiction are far more likely possibilities than escapes from HMP Belmarsh. Security services are already dealing with foreign terrorist plots, and it would be prudent to deprive them of human resources, (in other words) these combat trained adherents who are likely becoming further radicalised in their environment. Furthermore, security forces would be able to interrogate these individuals to better understand the radicalisation and practical process that lead to Syria, and thus engineer effective strategies to combat them. There is also an argument that public trials relaying the horrors of joining ISIS, like the plight of Ms Begum, would act as a strong deterrent to those at-risk of radicalisation.
The legal constitutions of different states provide further difficulties to negotiate. Under international law it is illegal to leave an individual stateless. In the case of Ms Begum, the UK revoked her citizenship under the assumption that she would be entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship through her lineage, despite never having visited Bangladesh herself. Some critics have described stripping nationals of citizenship to be foisting responsibility onto other states. The decision also introduces implications of second-class citizens – by virtue of having mixed ethnic roots one’s citizenship seemingly becomes revocable. To be in favour of revoking citizenship seems to demand one to take exception with the UN’s stance against statelessness, although the debate has rarely ever entertained this discussion. Legal institutions vary across countries, and if one’s concern is whether justice is meted out to foreign fighters, one must ask what type of justice. In Bangladesh, like in Iraq, ISIS fighters can receive the death sentence. If European governments believe this judicial process to be acceptable for its citizens, why did the EU abolish the death penalty? In refusing to take legal responsibility for their foreign fighters, European countries seem to accept inconsistent notions of justice.
I have aimed here to provide an overview of the troublesome intellectual territory involved in repatriating extremists. Both those in favour and those against have genuine fears concerning the implications for national security with the return of foreign fighters. Whilst it seems that security experts favour states shouldering the burden placed on Iraqis, Kurds, SDF and Turkey through repatriation, prosecution and integration, the court of public opinion in the West appears to oppose such a policy. Many European governments have been voted into power on promises to toughen stances on immigration by closing borders. Should the public continue to firmly oppose the repatriation of extremists it is hard to envision any government defying the core of their support base. In the midst of a pandemic which has distracted America’s attention away from the Middle East to within its own borders and President Trump concerned most with his re-election campaign, it is unlikely that there will be enough foreign pressure for stricter European governments to reverse their policy decisions thus far.
Freddie Feltham is President of the Oxford Forum for Questioning ‘Extremism’ (OFQE). The OFQE will be hosting their first discussion on the moral, legal and practical grounds for repatriating extremists on the 14th October from 7-8pm via Zoom.