The British government’s treatment of Shamima Begum will not only scare every black and Asian citizen, but will also fail to deal with the root causes of young people’s political disaffection, writes Ndella Paye.
Shamima Begum is a 20-year-old British woman with parents of Bangladeshi heritage. She left London in 2015 at the age of 15 with two friends to join the Islamic State in Syria.
Once there, she married a man and had three children who died from malnutrition and disease. Her last son died of pneumonia just a few days after his birth in March 2019 in a Syrian refugee camp.
The young woman has been asking to return to Britain since the last days of that pregnancy. The then British home secretary, Sajid Javid, opposed this request, calling for the removal of Shamima’s British nationality to prevent her return to the UK. Under international law it is illegal to render a person stateless. According to the British government, Shamima does not have Bangladeshi nationality but is entitled to it and could apply for it.
The young woman’s appeal against the decision to forfeit her British nationality was unanimously rejected on 7 February 2020 by the judges of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). Her lawyers are appealing against the decision. Shamima is still in Syria. Human rights organisations consider her life to be in danger.
The judges’ decision sends a highly negative message to children and young people in Britain’s BAME communities: you will never be really British, your nationality can be taken away from you at any time.
By stripping Shamima of her nationality, the British government and judiciary are proving terrorist groups correct: young people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds are second-class citizens and don’t deserve the UK’s protection.
But this kind of treatment is not unique to the UK. This practice exists in many Western countries. Belgium has recently stripped citizens of nationality. Former French President François Hollande tried to take French nationality from binationals born in France. He only backed down because of strong civil society opposition.
This climate of suspicion is not confined to Europe. President Donald Trump sent a clear message to Americans last July when he demanded that four non-white congresswomen “go back” to the countries they came from.
British politicians and judges are sending the same message to non-white British citizens: you will never be real citizens. And yet, everyone knows that the sole original citizens of the US are Native Americans, and Trump isn’t one of them. He’s as much an immigrant as the women he wants to send “home”.
So what makes him think he has more right to stay in the US than the four black women?
The British government and judiciary think that the 7 February decision will prevent the recruitment of young people into terrorist groups. By treating the symptoms of the disease and hoping to create the illusion that you’ve eradicated it, you don’t cure it.
There are, however, many other solutions to the malaise of young people, who are often from black or ethnic minority communities and spiral into fanaticism and violence, even terrorism.
Precariousness and racist discrimination necessarily bring about this kind of drift (which sometimes also affects middle class white youth) — though they are not sufficient reasons, since most victims of racism and precariousness do not fall into these extremes.
Prevention, therefore, requires courageous and just political decisions, which offer a more attractive future than that promised by the Islamic State or other terrorist groups.
This means, for example, guaranteeing young people, whichever neighbourhood they live in, schools that don’t charge fees and do provide an education that is equal to the best. It means creating places for young people to engage in activities such as sports and art, where they can meet each other and entertain themselves outside of school and home, whatever their background and neighbourhood.
It means spending public money on fighting discrimination at all levels of society, in housing, at work. It means guaranteeing equal treatment to all citizens, not only in legal texts, but in practice and in everyday life. It is simply to offer the same opportunities to all citizens.
A state must also think about the consequences of its political decisions. People in BAME communities usually have strong links with the rest of the world because of their histories, their trajectories, their families, their political commitments, their sensitivities. Like many of us, Shamima found the war in Syria unfair because it killed and still kills hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Did our governments do everything to avoid these massacres?
Shamima was born and raised in the UK, and many young people will undeniably identify with her. The question is: what made her and her friends leave a western country at the age of 15 to join a country at war and to live in deplorable conditions? What is more attractive about life in Syria than the UK, such that you, at 15 years old, abandon your family, friends, school, future?
Our politicians face a big challenge: how to make life here more attractive than terrorist groups. What they lack is not financial means, but political will and courage.
Ndella Paye is a French antiracist and afrofeminist based in London.