The Death of Shamima Begum’s Child Could’ve Been Avoided

After home secretary Sajid Javid was criticised for the child's death, the UK pledged another £100 million aid for Syria.

New Delhi: When Shamima Begum left the UK to join the Islamic State, she was 15 years old. She is 19 now. In mid-February, she was found in a Syrian refugee camp by a journalist from The Times; then a mother, a son named Jerah – she hoped to be allowed back to the UK, where she could “live quietly with her child.” This was Shahmima’s third child. She lost her first two to disease and malnutrition.

Jarah died of pneumonia on March 7. He was less than three years old. The conditions at the camp were said to be “pretty appaling”, with a shortage of food, blankets and tents.

The UK’s policy is clear. Home secretary Sajid Javid, in a letter to Shamima’s mother in February, stripped the 19-year-old of her British citizenship, in light of the “the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here.”

Javid has said the government is working to stop the “senseless violence”, but hasn’t spoken about the death of Shamima’s child yet.

A government spokesman said that the death of children is “tragic and deeply distressing for the family”.

“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has consistently advised against travel to Syria since April 2011.”

The UK has allocated another £100m to its pledged aid of £300m for the Syrian crisis. It aims to provide food and water, healthcare and education for children. The additional aid was announced after Javid was criticised over the ‘entirely avoidable death’ of Shamima’s child.

The dilemma and duality of citizenship

After Shamima was stripped of her British citizenship, the Bangladeshi government ruled out giving her the country’s citizenship. “She is a British citizen whose citizenship has been revoked by the UK. There is no question of her being a Bangladeshi citizen as she never visited the country,” Shahariar Alam, Bangladesh’s state minister for foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera. “The current government of Bangladesh maintains a zero tolerance policy on terrorism,” he added.

However, considering her Bangladeshi heritage, she is automatically a Bangladeshi by birth, i.e., she holds a dual nationality. Another option for Shamima is seeking Dutch citizenship.

“Another option I might try with my family is my husband is from Holland and he has family in Holland. Maybe I can ask for citizenship in Holland. If he gets sent back to prison in Holland I can just wait for him while he is in prison,” she said. When Shamima arrived in Raqqa in 2015, she married Yago Riedijk of Dutch nationality, who has now surrendered to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Shamima’s father, speaking to the Daily Mail, said that she does not deserve to come back to Britain. “I know she is stuck there [in Syria], but that’s because she has done actions that made her get stuck like this,” he said. His views on his daughter fall contrary to her relatives, who are keen on having her return to the UK.

“I don’t know how I would be seen as a danger. I’m not going to go back and provoke people to go to ISIS or anything, if anything I’m going to encourage them not to go because it’s not all as it seems in their videos,” said Shamina, who “started becoming religious” before she left the UK.

“At first it was nice, it was like how they showed it in the videos, like ‘come, make a family together’,” she said in an interview with Sky News.

UK’s opposition Labour Party said the government was wrong to revoke Shamima’s citizenship. “If the government is proposing to make Shamima Begum stateless it is not just a breach of international human rights law but is a failure to meet our security obligations to the international community,” said Diane Abbott, Labour spokeswoman on home issues.

Shamina not the only one

Shamima is one of several women who joined the IS and are thought to be still in the region. The Kurdish-led SDF have been pushing further into Syria, re-claiming territories from the militants and evacuating civilians.

The recent defeat in Baghouz marks an apparent end of IS in Syria. Since early December 2018, more than 46,000 people have streamed out of the shrinking war-ridden region, as per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor. About 2,000 people are believed to remain inside Baghouz, the IS’s last forte in Syria, where about 1,000 militants are cornered.

A sudden surge in revoking citizenship

In the UK, there has been a significant spike in the number of people who have been deprived of their British citizenship on the grounds of “public good” by the government. Between 2006 and 2016, there were 50 such cases, against 104 in 2017 alone. Between 1973 and 2002, not a single person’s citizenship was revoked.

The UK believes that if former militants are allowed to re-settle in the country, they may plan an action not beneficial for the “public good”. A study by researchers Petter Nesser and Thomas Hegghammer stated that the number of attacks by IS fighters who returned to their home in the West between 2011 and 2015 was just one in 360. A prior study focused on “jihadis” returning to the West between 1980 and 2010 showed that 11% of them were involved in domestic terror plots.

This, primarily, may occur due to a failed rehabilitation programme, researchers say. The rehabilitation programme is conducted in addition to the customary process of a trial. The UK had a similar programme in Northern Ireland previously, helping former prisoners play a key role in “development of community-based initiatives”. In Germany and Scandinavia too, “exit” programmes tried to help people leave neo-Nazi groups.