Citizenship is a matter of life and death. This was made abundantly clear in the case of Shamima Begum and her newborn child, who were recently denied the right to return to the UK from Syria. Home secretary Sajid Javid announced that Begum would be stripped of her UK citizenship, claiming that she would not be made stateless as she is eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. This was not the case: Shamima Begum remains stateless, and so did her newborn son, until he died only weeks old, at a Kurdish-held refugee camp in Northern Syria. Home secretary Sajid Javid has been accused of stripping Begum’s citizenship in order to garner right-wing Tory votes as he is angling a leadership challenge to Theresa May. So not only has Javid potentially broken international law by making Begum stateless and contributing to the death of her child, he probably did so because of a cynical careerist calculation.
Shamima Begum was groomed, manipulated and eventually convinced to join ISIS in Syria as a fifteen-year-old child in 2015. Supporting a terrorist organisation such as ISIS is morally reprehensible, joining them even more so, but we must remember that she did so as a minor. No evidence of her committing a crime (bar joining the group) in Syria has surfaced. Even if this was not the case, she should be allowed to return to the UK to face trial, like in any normal situation. Furthermore, hundreds of jihadis have already returned to the UK and are either on trial or under surveillance, but the Home Office decided to make the most vulnerable among them an example. In the end, she is not the responsibility of the Syrian Kurds who hold the territory she finds herself in or the Syrian Government of Bashar al Assad, but the responsibility of the United Kingdom. Her situation is the result, yes, of horrible personal decisions, but also of the failure of the British school system, of the police and of British society at large. For instance, her school and the police knew that one of her friends had left for Syria some months earlier, but failed to inform her parents.
What is so harrowing about this case is that it shows the increasing fragility of citizenship rights in the UK and elsewhere. This is especially true for people of colour, who already risk deportation if they cannot prove their “continued presence” in the country. The removal of Begum’s citizenship sets up a precedent where even proving one’s continued presence may not be enough; the UK government is exploring the possibility to take away anyone’s citizenship who is deemed “other” enough. In the case of Begum, this was done as a result of internal party politics, with no respect for international law. Similarly, right-wing parties in Finland want to be able to remove Finnish citizenship from dual citizens who have committed crimes of “sexual or violent nature”. In the Netherlands, a law was passed in 2017 that allows the stripping of citizenship from “foreign fighters”. The execution of laws like these will predominantly target people of colour and lead to human rights violations like in the case of Shamima Begum. The Begum case also points to the Janus-faced quality of citizenship. On one hand, citizenship gives ‘us’ rights (although as we have seen, these rights are not eternal), the right to healthcare, the right to education and travel et cetera. On the other, citizenship excludes. The vast majority of the people on this planet do not enjoy these rights that we are so proud of. For so-called “undocumented migrants”, the UK truly is a hostile environment, as they cannot seek any kind of government assistance without severe risk of being deported. Here, citizenship is a tool of demarcation: it is one of the qualifiers with which it is determined how easy and carefree, or how violent and precarious our lives will be.
In this way, citizenship is a form of necropower. Necropower is a term coined by philosopher Achille Mbembe, meaning the political power to decide how and whether people should live. In the case of Begum and her child, the removal of citizenship can be seen through the lens of necropower. The Home Office decided, under the leadership of Sajid Javid, that it was politically worthwhile to remove Begum’s citizenship and condemn her to statelessness and her child to death. In the case of “undocumented migrants”, they have fled life-endangering circumstances in their regions of origin, only to face inhumane and exploitative conditions in the “West” due to their exclusion from citizenship and the criminalisation of their very presence. These measures, and their results, are the crystallisation of the idea that our freedom is dependent on the unfreedom of others.
Citizenship is of course not the only determinant of how our lives will be. Indeed, in the case of Shamima Begum, her racialised identity has been far more determining. Begum was a UK citizen, but as Ash Sarkar, journalist and lecturer at the Sandberg Instituut writes: “Sajid Javid and the media at large have used Shamima Begum as a proxy for something else: a Briton who was never truly British, the criminal who is unworthy of being even tried under British law, the exception who stands outside of humanity”. The removal of her citizenship points to a renegotiation of British identity: away from a colonial understanding of hierarchical togetherness to a more explicitly racial and exclusionary white identity. This is also clearly visible in the Windrush scandal, where at least 83 people previously considered British enough have been wrongly detained and deported.
Critically, the reason why the Begum case and the Windrush scandal are scandals at all is that the victims are still somehow perceived as being connected to Britain. Not to minimise the suffering of anyone, but this hierarchy of attention is even visible in the reporting of the Windrush scandal itself. Most of the media has been focused on deportations to the West Indies, missing the suffering of people considered to be lower on the hierarchy of Britishness such as West Africans and South East Asians. The suffering of people on the lowest rungs of this unjust hierarchy, such as undocumented migrants or Yemeni civilians is often completely ignored. To come back to Shamima Begum and the question of citizenship, this case is indicative of a wider necropolitical struggle that should be seen in the context of the Windrush scandal, the so-called refugee crisis and the rise of fascism around the world. The removal of Begum’s citizenship dangerous precedent, allowing the UK government to continue shrinking the legal definition of Britishness while sustaining the deportations of all it deems unfit and unwanted.
Despite its current exclusionary character, citizenship is not a concept corrupt to the core. The ideals of equality before the law, cooperation and civic participation that citizenship represents to some are not bad in themselves. Clearly, the problem with citizenship is that it is an arbitrary and exclusionary institution, the benefits and disadvantages of which are distributed unevenly across the globe. The core values of citizenship as a concept can only be realised through the dissolution of the narrow and repressive system of national citizenship and the construction of a global citizenship. A first step on this long road could be the institution of a global minimum wage, where every worker in the world would be guaranteed a certain level of compensation for their work. Such an initiative could start breaking down the barriers between countries by making labour arbitrage more difficult, and it could prove important in the building of universal citizenship. Here is another idea: let the people affected by a decision take part in the decision-making process. It would seem to me that this is a fundamental aspect of democracy, but it is violated every day in the exclusion of non-citizens. In academic jargon this concept is called “politics of presence”, but for me, it is just common democratic sense.