Shamima Begum should be treated just like any other child fighter who has been recruited during armed conflict. And yet, the UK has failed her by dismissing the possibility for de-radicalisation or reintegration.
Stripped of British citizenship
Instead, Shamima has been stripped of her British citizenship. Like a modern form of exile and banishment, citizenship deprivation is a very serious punishment, especially when it renders an individual stateless. It will mean that Begum has no access to the state apparatus or the legal protection afforded to citizens.
Citizenship deprivation is being used to pander to the right-wing media and polls that want to see the government take a hard line with immigration and terrorism. Britain is taking the stance that someone like Shamima is a threat to national security rather than considering reintegration as a possibility.
I wonder what sort of society Britain is building when citizenship deprivation can be used so broadly? Especially when there is no legal framework to administer justice through a fair trial.
This counterproductive policy will only increase the marginalisation of young people vulnerable to extreme views. This is particularly concerning when citizenship deprivation has not only increased since the start of the Syrian War but has targeted mainly British Muslim men. Begum, and anyone else who was groomed to join a militant group as a child, deserves better than this.
She deserves to be trialled in British courts or reintegrated into her community like any other child soldier.
Possibilities for reintegration
In fact, Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) is used broadly in post-conflict zones to reintegrate ex-combatants into civilian life. DDR has been used in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to help children reintegrate and prepare communities to receive them. Children who were recruited by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) were forced to perform unimaginable acts of violence to their own communities and sometimes even to their families. Similarly, in explaining the justification behind the Manchester bombing Shamima is imagined to have performed an act of violence against Britain. Why then is it okay for a child soldier from the LRA to reintegrate in the DRC but Shamima is still seen as a threat? Surely, this is routed in British racism which sees Shamima, not as a real British citizen but belonging to the Global South.
Due to the racist tropes that surround Islamic radicalisation someone like Shamima can never be innocent. Even as a child she is framed as ‘willingly’ joining ISIS. However, like other child soldiers, Shamima was recruited to join ISIS when she was at a vulnerable age – just fifteen – like other child soldiers she was radicalised and forced to witness mass atrocities, like other female child soldiers she has been the victim of sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Shamima was married to a man nearly twice her age, lost two children and her husband, before being married off again.
Instead, the public debate has veered towards moralising Shamima – telling her to stay where she is and accept the consequences of her actions. But, examining the sorts of despotic spectacles ISIS have crafted – as well as the sexual and gender-based violence that has been central to the ‘Caliphate’ – begs the question, what would make any child attracted to such a place?
Acknowledging the push factors that lead someone like Shamima to ISIS is a crucial step towards peace. However, when it requires Britain to confront the hostile environment it has created for divergent communities, it is unlikely we will see any debate on this.
With little public discourse about reconciliation, it is doubtful how we will move towards peace. Now that Begum has been left stateless in Syria I can only speculate as to what sort of transitional justice the UK government is imaging will take place – if any.
Leaving vulnerable people stateless
I also wonder what sort of society Britain is building when citizenship deprivation can be used so broadly? Statelessness appears as a threat to people from migratory backgrounds. Whilst the consequences for international relations and peace talks are unclear, especially when there is no legal framework to administer justice through a fair trial. This does a disservice to the individuals and communities affected by ISIS. Shamima and any other British nationals who joined ISIS should be trialled in court or reintegrated through DDR, if appropriate. Leaving them stateless in a war-zone is inhumane and will only increase hostility.
- Bella Saltiel is pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS.