by Claude Salhani
Fighting in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts may be over for the foreign fighters and supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS) but many face a new set of challenges — legal battles — if they attempt to return to their former European homes.
Several thousand Europeans, reports from the field indicate, have started an exodus from Syria as the last bastion held by ISIS fighters is expected to soon fall to anti-Islamists and pro-government Syrian forces.
No one seems to know the exact numbers of European jihadis concerned but, regardless, there is bound to be a social issue that Western countries will have to face.
Much has changed in the last year as renewed efforts by the Syrian government, supported by Russian and Iranian forces and the limited US, French and British troops, have radically reduced the territory once under ISIS control to a small pocket of resistance where the remaining fighters, mostly Europeans, are holding out. In many cases because they simply have nowhere to go.
As the European jihadists trickle back to their home countries, they are bound to come up against legal issues that may prevent them from reintegrating into Europe. Aggravating the problem is the prevailing political climate in Europe, where there has been a veer to the far right in Hungary and Poland as strong anti-immigration sentiments persist.
Take the case of Shamima Begum, a British woman who fled London as a teen in 2015 and was caught up in the frenzy of the Islamist movement, then in ascendance. Begum was found recuperating from her ordeal in a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border. She has since given birth and was hoping to take her son to the United Kingdom.
However, Britain stripped Begum of her UK citizenship, saying she ought to go to Bangladesh, the homeland of her mother. Except that she has never been to Bangladesh and does not have citizenship from that country and hardly speaks the language.
Bangladeshi law says citizenship is passed down from the mother. Regardless, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dhaka said Begum does not hold Bangladeshi citizenship and will not be allowed to enter.
British law states that one can only be stripped of citizenship on condition the individual concerned is eligible for citizenship in another country. The British Home Office thought that Begum held Bangladeshi citizenship. It turns out she does not.
The Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government was “deeply concerned” Begum had been “erroneously identified” as a Bangladeshi national. In a statement, it said Begum had never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh and had never visited the country. It added that the country had a “zero tolerance” approach to terrorism and violent extremism.
“I wasn’t born in Bangladesh, I’ve never seen Bangladesh and I don’t even speak Bengali properly, so how can they claim I have Bangladeshi citizenship?” she said.
While he said he would not comment on individual cases, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has suggested Begum’s baby could be considered British. He told parliament: “Children should not suffer. So if a parent does lose their British citizenship, it does not affect the rights of their child.”
Javid said the power to deprive a person of citizenship was only used “in extreme circumstances,” for example, “when someone turns their back on the fundamental values and supports terror.”
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott accused Javid of breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality.”
Begum changed her mind about ISIS after the group imprisoned and tortured her Dutch husband — an armed jihadist. Escape was impossible, she claimed: “They’d kill you if you tried.”
Begum and thousands like her may or may not have been born in the United Kingdom but were radicalised in the United Kingdom and not in Bangladesh. Is it fair to force them to “return” to a country to which they have no connection, cannot identify with and where their animosity towards the United Kingdom and the West will only percolate over the years into outright hatred?
There must be common ground to avoid a greater social conundrum. In the middle of Europe’s confused imperatives, common ground might not be an easy objective to define or achieve.