Talking about the case of Shamima Begum in the classroom

Shamima Begum became a household name when her story hit national news earlier this year. Her case is complex, but provides a valuable opportunity to explore the rule of law.

In 2015, aged just 15, she left her London home and travelled to Syria. Ten days after arriving she married a known Jihadist fighter and went on to have three children, all of whom died in infancy.

Following the collapse of the caliphate, she was found living in a UN refugee camp on the outskirts of al-Hawl, early in 2019. Heavily pregnant with her third child, Begum told a journalist that she wished to return to the UK and, in doing so, unleashed a media storm. A short while later the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced the Government’s intention to revoke her British citizenship.

Terrorist threat or vulnerable citizen?

Opinions on both the legality and ethics of this decision have been hugely divided. Some argue that Begum is a threat to our national security; that she knowingly chose to travel to Syria and has shown little remorse for her views. Others see a young girl catastrophically let down by safe-guarding protocols and groomed by a dangerous terrorist organisation, who successfully radicalised her. Can both these things be true?

Even if we do feel she was, and still is, responsible for her actions – is banishing her the right decision?

The law in the UK states that the Home Secretary can revoke the citizenship of a UK-born citizen if it is conducive to public good and that it would not make the person in question stateless. Legally what this means for Begum is by no means clear cut.

Is banishing Begum conducive to public good? The British security services believe that British citizens who have travelled out to fight for or support ISIS pose a grave security risk. Radicalised Europeans who have returned from Syria have committed terrorist atrocities on European soil. However, others have returned and are being ‘de-radicalised’.

Will it leave her stateless? Javid argued that, due to her parents’ Bangladeshi heritage, she could claim citizenship there. However, the Foreign Affairs Minister in Bangladesh has clearly stated “there is no question of her being allowed in the country”. Begum herself has never been to Bangladesh.

Regardless of whether she is seen as a victim of grooming or a threat to British security, or both, should she not be made to answer to the British justice system? If we don’t hold her to account for any potential crimes committed, who will? Is it acceptable to place that responsibility on another country?

Should she be entitled to legal aid to support her appeal? More recently it has been confirmed that Begum, like many other people who are in the criminal justice system, will be able to access legal aid to support her appeal. Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary, says it makes him personally ‘very uncomfortable,’ whilst Jeremy Corbyn has defended the decision stating,

“The whole point of legal aid is that if you’re facing a prosecution then you’re entitled to be represented and that’s a fundamental rule of law, a fundamental point in any democratic society.”

As such, the Begum case creates powerful opportunities for educators to facilitate discussions around our political systems and the rule of law.

To help instigate and support these discussions in secondary classrooms Young Citizens has, in collaboration with The Bar Council, produced a school pack to explore questions such as:

  • What it means to be a British citizen
  • What the eligibility requirements/routes to British citizenship are
  • What rights and responsibilities come with being a British citizen
  • What it means to have one’s citizenship revoked and the legal and ethical implications of this
  • What the role of the legal system, courts and politicians are in the decision-making process.

The pack aims to engage students in a critical examination of both the legal aspects of the case and the ethical conundrum that Begum’s story brings to light.

Teachers – download your free copy here.