Citizenship, Statelessness and the Returning “ISIS Brides”

Guest blog by Craig Barker.

Citizenship is an increasingly contested concept in today’s diverse world. For some, it is possible to establish dual or even multiple citizenship, leading to enhanced rights of travel and protection. For others citizenship is an elusive ideal, with many individuals denied citizenship and rendered stateless.

The consequences of statelessness are devastating and can result in a complete repudiation of basic human rights, for example, through the denial of access to health and education, to social security and to shelter and, indeed, to the right to a nationality, which is itself enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (Article 15).

To prevent such outcomes international legal instruments have been developed to protect stateless persons (see United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons 1954) and to prevent statelessness (United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness 1961). Ultimately, however, the question of the granting or removal of citizenship is governed by the laws of each individual state.

The situation of Shemima Begum, in the United Kingdom, and of other so-called “ISIS brides” seeking to return home from Syria, has given rise to significant recent controversy. In the Begum case, the UK Home Office wrote to Begum’s family on 19 February 2019 indicating that her UK citizenship would be removed on that grounds that it would be in the public interest to do so. Nevertheless, the UK’s Home Secretary has since indicated that it might prove difficult to do this, as it would be in breach of the UK’s obligations under international law. The UK is party to both the 1954 and 1961 Conventions outlined above and, although there was some suggestion that Begum might be able to claim Bangladeshi citizenship, it has become clear that she does not have dual citizenship and so removal of her UK citizenship would render her stateless.

Similar outcomes might be expected in other Western states where politicians have struggled to deal with the question of citizens convicted of terrorism. In France and Germany, at least, the desire not to render individuals stateless has prevented new laws coming into force allowing for citizenship to be revoked in such cases. It is unlikely that a different rule would be applied to returning ISIS brides.

In the US, the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution bars Congress from revoking the citizenship of an individual born in the US. An individual who is naturalized, however, can have their citizenship revoked in certain circumstances. Accordingly, an ISIS bride returning to the US cannot have her citizenship revoked if she were born in the US, but she might were she a naturalized citizen. As the US is not party to neither the 1954 nor the 1961 Conventions, there would be no prima facie breach of international law if citizenship were revoked in such circumstances.

It is possible to assert that these individuals have made a conscious choice to renounce their existing citizenship, and reject the values that they are now seeking to invoke. Policy arguments may be put forward in favour of removal of citizenship as a punishment or as a deterrent to others seeking to follow the same or similar paths. Nevertheless, effectively rendering an individual stateless is problematic in terms of restricting future unacceptable activities, or of punishing those suspected of crimes.

States have a responsibility to their own populations and to the international community more generally to take responsibility for individuals who have their citizenship. In the case of Begum, given that she was born and brought up in the UK, Britain has a responsibility to look after her. However, it also has a responsibility to challenge her behaviours and, where it considered that she has committed a criminal act, to seek to prosecute her in relation to those alleged crimes.

Craig Barker is Dean and Professor of International Law, School of Law and Social Sciences, at London South Bank University.

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