Irrespective of criminal offences, governments have a responsibility to comply with international standards and allow all citizens to be dealt by legal due process.
In the world today there are over 10 million stateless people that we are aware of. In reality, there must be many more. These are individuals not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law. Their absence of a legal identity bars access to health care, education and employment.
According to UNHCR, the primary cause of statelessness is discrimination. In 2014, the Refugee Agency’s #IBelongCampaign was established to end the injustice of statelessness by encouraging Governments to change their laws and procedures to provide stateless people their rights and a place to belong.
Denial of their rights impacts not only the individuals concerned but also society, particularly because excluding an entire sector of the population can lead to social tensions and significantly impair economic and social development.
To achieve the goals of UNHCR’s campaign, a Global Action Plan to End Statelessness 2014 – 2024 introduced a guiding framework comprised of 10 Actions to be undertaken by States. In the case of high-profile ‘ISIS Bride’ runaway from Bethnal Green to Baghuz, Shamima Begum, the UK disregarded Actions 4 and 9:
Action 4: Prevent denial, loss or deprivation of nationality on discriminatory grounds.
Action 9: Accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions.
What are the laws?
The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are the key international conventions addressing statelessness, complimented by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which asserts "no-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality".
Section 40(2) of the 1981 British Nationality Act states the Home Secretary has the power to make the ultimate decision based on what is “conducive to the public good” and won’t make the individual rendered stateless as a result. Under this, it appears UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s decision to revoke Begum’s citizenship breaks UK and international law.
Since the new Immigration Act in 2014, then Home Secretary and current UK Prime Minister Theresa May introduced new “deprivation powers” to revoke citizenship from individuals considered ‘prejudicial’ to the UK, even when doing so would render them statelessness, but this power can only be exercised when there is reasonable grounds to believe the person can become a national of another country.
Current Home Secretary Javid stripped Begum of British nationality based on the Bangladeshi “citizenship by descent law” which applies to anyone born to a Bangladeshi parent and would thus mean Begum could activate her Bangladeshi citizenship by the age of 21 through her mother. The country’s state minister for foreign affairs, Shahriar Alam however, stated: “There is no question of her being a Bangladeshi citizen as she never visited the country”.
How should cases like these be treated?
The Home Office’s 2018 counter-terrorism strategy’s foreword by Javid, states individuals who have travelled to the conflict zone of Syria, “must expect to be investigated by the police to determine if they have committed criminal offences and to ensure that they do not pose a threat to national security.” The strategy recommends the following due process:
A Temporary Exclusion Order (TEO) should be approved to manage the person’s return to a UK. This should be followed by a criminal investigation to determine whether the subject has committed any crimes and followed by a programme of deradicalisation and rehabilitation.
Particularly if no crimes were committed, the individual in question should be assisted in reintegrating into society. If there is a child involved, the local authority has a responsibility to ensure appropriate measures are in place to help safeguard the child’s welfare.
Ultimately, the UK and all states have a duty of care to their citizens and should not allow security rhetoric or populist campaigns to undermine their human rights. Governments around the world have a responsibility to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and not render their citizens stateless.
After all, to what effect can the world’s third biggest overseas aid donor purport and advocate civilised values in developing countries when it sets a precedent that disregards systematic due process and the rule of law?
SDG 16 promotes peaceful and inclusive societies that provide access to justice for all to build effective and accountable institutions. The law should apply to all of us if it is to mean anything, including those who cause the most harm. A system of laws which only apply to those who “deserve” the protection of them, endangers us all, everywhere.
The bottom line is clear: it is never humane or legal to render someone stateless and powerful nations like the UK should be setting the example. In the case of extremists like Shamima Begum, repatriation, investigation, prosecution and rehabilitation are the most appropriate ways to achieve the best possible outcome for all. Statelessness is not the answer.