Middle East

IS cases raise a question: What does it mean to be stateless?

Syrian women carry a water jug back to their makeshift house at the refugee camp of Qah along the Turkish border in the village of Atme. Source: Getty

A debate about statelessness has been set off as Western countries face the dilemma of what to do with citizens who desire to return after joining IS.

By Megan Specia from The New York Times

Shamima Begum was 15 when she became radicalised, left her home in London for Syria and joined the Islamic State, marrying one of its fighters.

As the group’s grip on its last pieces of territory slipped, Begum, 19 and pregnant, fled to a refugee camp in northern Syria. When she met a British reporter there, she made one thing clear: She wanted to come home.

But Britain’s Home Office informed her family by letter of its plans to strip her of her citizenship.

The government says it is acting to protect the British public first. But a lawyer for Begum, who recently gave birth to a baby boy, said the move would render the British-born woman stateless.

The dilemma of what to do with citizens of Western countries who threw in their lot with IS before it was largely ousted from Syria has set off a debate over citizenship and the statelessness that might result from stripping some of them of their nationality.

It is an issue faced not just by Begum.

The United States looked poised to follow suit when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement Wednesday saying that Hoda Muthana, a US-born woman who left college in Alabama to join IS, “is not a US citizen.” Muthana, he said, could not return home.

However appealing it may appear to governments that want to send a powerful message to those who turn against their own countries, legal experts warn of long-term problems if the stranded IS members end up stateless.

“This is leaving people homeless without protection, and destroying any form of international cooperation,” said Clive Baldwin, a senior legal adviser for Human Rights Watch.

Hoda Muthana 'deeply regrets' joining Is and wants to return home.
Hoda Muthana 'deeply regrets' joining Is and wants to return home.

What is statelessness and how widespread is it?

The UN refugee agency defines a stateless person as someone who does not have the nationality of any country.

Some are born stateless because of gaps in nationality laws — in effect, they fall through the cracks. Others become stateless as new nations emerge, or borders change. And some have their nationality revoked.

It can mean a life in perpetual limbo, said David Baluarte, an expert on statelessness and professor of law at Washington and Lee University.

“They are constantly living in the shadows, potentially sought out by immigration officials or security forces,” he said. “Their reality is one of sort of perpetual threat of immigration detention or potential for removal to another country.”

At least 10 million people globally are stateless, and most — more than 75 percent — are part of minority groups in the countries where they reside.

The Rohingya of Myanmar, the Nubians of Kenya, Dominicans of Haitian descent and the Bidoon of Saudi Arabia are just some of the communities denied nationality.

“Its unfortunately not uncommon for governments to identify an ethnically or racially or religiously disfavored group and then to sort of systematically write laws that strip the fundamental rights of those people,” Baluarte said.

The case against statelessness

Since the end of World War II — in part as a response to Nazi Germany stripping Jews of their citizenship before rounding them up and shipping them to ghettos and then concentration camps — international law has codified protections for the stateless.

Two UN Conventions on Statelessness, in 1954 and 1961, laid out basic principles of human rights for those without a nationality. They also sought to limit the deprivation of nationality in cases when it would make someone stateless. Some 61 nations, including Britain, are signatories.

“That legal protection exists, so states that are stripping people of nationality and leaving them stateless are violating that law,” Baluarte said.

The United States has its own precedent. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in Trop v. Dulles that it was unconstitutional to revoke citizenship and make someone stateless as a punishment for a crime.

“Citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior,” the justices wrote.

But the lessons of the past, some fear, are being lost.

“Civilised nations after World War II saw how abusive the stripping of citizenship that would leave someone stateless was,” Baluarte said. “But we are bringing ourselves back to a place where we have forgotten how desperate the situation of statelessness was. And having this new wave of politically motivated expatriation is really troubling.”

UNICEF has also urged countries to consider the best interest of children when weighing stripping citizenship from IS recruits who are parents. "Every child has the right to a name, an identity and a nationality,” the organisation said in a statement.

Sajid Javid, Britain’s home secretary, has taken a hard line on the citizenship issue, but speaking in front of Parliament, he seemed to suggest that Begum’s newborn son would retain his citizenship.

“Children should not suffer,” he said. “So if a parent does lose their British citizenship, it does not affect the rights of their child.”


The risk of returning IS members

Javid, speaking to Parliament on Wednesday, vowed to stop those who had joined the IS from returning to Britain. He said the Home Office could bar non-British citizens from entry to the country, or strip “dangerous individuals” of their British citizenship.

“I’ve been resolute that where they pose any threat to this country, I will do everything in my power to prevent their return,” Javid said. “They turned their back on this country to support a group that butchered and beheaded innocent civilians, including British citizens.”

The Home Office said in a statement that Javid has the power to deprive someone of their British citizenship where it would not render them stateless. The office did not comment on Begum’s case specifically, but British authorities are reported to believe they can act against her because her mother has a passport from Bangladesh.

Shamima Begum said she only wants to return to the UK with her newborn baby.
Shamima Begum said she only wanted to return to the UK with her newborn baby.

However, according to Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer for Begum’s family, the young woman is not a citizen of Bangladesh, and that country has said she will not be allowed entry. That would render her stateless.

Clive of Human Rights Watch said taking away citizenship “on the whims of a minister” is setting a bad precedent.

Beyond that, it can make it hard to hold people legally accountable for their actions.

“If you want justice,” Clive said, “it’s much more likely that if people return to their homes, in Europe, in Tunisia — where lots of people who joined ISIS are from — there is a lot more possibility justice can be done.”

In the case of Muthana, the IS volunteer from Alabama, Pompeo’s statement that she is not a US citizen contradicts information given by her family and lawyer.

Hassan Shibly, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who is advising the family, said Muthana was not a Yemeni citizen. He provided a birth certificate for her that showed she was born in Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1994.

If Muthana joins the ranks of the stateless, said Baldwin, the Human Right Watch legal adviser, that would pose far more risk than bringing her home and investigating her involvement with the IS.

“If they are stateless, where are they going to go?” he said. “No country has any obligation to take them. That is not the recipe for a stable government. It’s likely the recipe for more radicalisation.”

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