Shamima Begum – A Disappointing Precedent for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking

by | Mar 25, 2024

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About Kirsten Larson

Kirsten is a current PhD researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, University of Galway. Her current research looks at Children and Armed Conflict, with a specific focus on Northeast Syria. Kirsten holds an LLM from the University of Galway in International Human Rights and a BA from Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) in Human Rights and Social Justice.

As the face of the UK’s counter-terrorism response, the Shamima Begum case continues to shine a spotlight on the critical intersection of counter-terrorism measures and the problem of human trafficking. The recent decision by the UK Court of Appeal regarding Begum’s citizenship deprivation under section 40 of the British Nationality Act 1981 further underscores the need for a comprehensive understanding of trafficking dynamics within the context of terrorism.

In February 2015, Begum left her family in the UK to travel to Syria and align herself with the Islamic State (ISIS), an UN-designated terror organisation. Her case garnered widespread media attention during a period of heightened fear surrounding ISIS activities. Despite her initial association with the group, Begum was found in 2019 in the Al Hawl camp in Northeast Syria, where she requested repatriation to the UK, citing concerns for her safety and that of her unborn child.

However, on 19 February 2019, then-Home Secretary Sajid Javid MP informed Begum of his intention to revoke her British citizenship, citing it as “conductive to the public good”[1]. This decision initiated Begum’s legal battle, during which she appealed to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) for leave to enter [3-14] to the UK to ensure a fair appeal, a request that was ultimately denied [137]. Presently, Begum remains detained in a facility in Northeast Syria, with her adjacent appeal for the unlawfulness of her citizenship deprivation and her access to the UK having been recently dismissed by the Court of Appeal [138].

A pivotal aspect of Begum’s case revolves around whether she was a victim of trafficking. Given Begum’s age at the time of her departure for Syria, there are questions surrounding her ability to provide informed consent, particularly given her status as a minor under 18 years old. However, the SIAC determined that Begum was capable of consenting to her circumstances, citing national security considerations as a “key consideration” [39].This decision highlights a departure from fundamental legal principles protecting minors (such as those listed in Art 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Art 3(d) of the Palermo Protocol), potentially setting a concerning precedent for future cases involving the recognition of minors as victims of trafficking.

Furthermore, the UK Court of Appeal dismissal of the application [82] of the non-punishment principle in Begum’s case raises additional concerns. The non-punishment principle serves as a critical safeguard for trafficking victims, ensuring that they are not penalised for actions resulting from their exploitation. Despite arguments for its application beyond criminal prosecutions, the court maintained that the principle does not extend to administrative sanctions, thereby limiting its scope and efficacy in cases like Begum’s.

This decision not only undermines Begum’s rights to repatriation and challenges the legality of her citizenship deprivation but also sets a worrying precedent for future cases involving victims of trafficking and terrorism. By prioritising state security concerns over the recognition of victimisation, the court’s decision highlights broader tensions between national security imperatives and human rights obligations.

The implications of Begum’s case extend beyond her individual circumstances, resonating with numerous foreign nationals awaiting repatriation in Northeast Syria. As conflicts persist globally and access to real-time information increases, the importance of addressing trafficking within the context of terrorism becomes increasingly apparent. Begum’s case underscores the urgent need for a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics at play and the development of comprehensive policies that safeguard the rights of trafficking victims while addressing legitimate security concerns.

For further reading, see the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, as well as her report on the implementation of the non-punishment principle and her joint statement with other UN experts on Shamima Begum’s case.

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