LONDON: A woman who was stripped of her British citizenship after joining the militant Islamic State (IS) group in Syria was the victim of propaganda and should be treated as a child trafficking victim, a court in London heard on Monday.

Shamima Begum, now 23, is one of hundreds of Europeans whose fate following the 2019 collapse of the extremists’ self-styled caliphate has proved a thorny issue for governments.

Aged 15 in 2015, she left her home in east London with two school friends to travel to Syria where she married an IS fighter and had three children, none of whom survived.

She was later “found” by British journalists, in a Syrian camp in February 2019 — and her apparent lack of remorse in initial interviews drew outrage. Dubbed an “IS bride”, she was stripped of her British citizenship, leaving her stranded and stateless in Syria’s Kurdish-run Roj camp.

Monday’s hearing at the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) follows a Supreme Court decision last year to refuse her permission to enter the UK to fight her citizenship case against the Home Office, or interior ministry.

Begum’s lawyer, Samantha Knights, told the start of the five day hearing that “at its heart this case concerns a British child aged 15 who was...influenced... with her friends... by a determined and effective Isis propaganda machine”.

There was “overwhelming” evidence she had been “recruited, transported, transferred, harboured and received in Syria for the purposes of ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘marriage’ to an adult male”, she added in written submissions.

But she told the hearing the process by which the Home Office took the decision to remove Begum’s citizenship was “extraordinary” and “over hasty” and failed to investigate and determine whether she was “a child victim of trafficking”.

James Eadie, for the Home Office, however said Begum “travelled, aligned, and stayed in Syria for four years” and that she only left IS-controlled territory for safety reasons “and not because of a genuine disengagement from the group”.

The then Home Secretary Sajid Javid “properly considered” all the factors before making his decision; the case was about “national security”, not trafficking he added.

‘Canadian spy’

A book published earlier this year by journalist Richard Kerbaj alleged that Begum and her friends were taken into Syria by a Syrian man who was leaking information to the Canadian security services.

“It is now fairly well settled that she and her friends were transported across borders... by a Canadian asset of the Canadian security forces,” Begum’s lawyer Tasnime Akunjee said ahead of the hearing. “The very definition of trafficking is pretty well established by that,” he added.

Despite her initial comments, Begum has since expressed remorse for her actions and sympathy for IS victims. In a documentary last year, she said that on arrival in Syria she quickly realised IS were “trapping people” to boost the caliphate’s numbers and “look good for the (propaganda) videos”.

Some 900 people are estimated to have travelled from Britain to Syria and Iraq to join IS. Of those, around 150 are believed to have been stripped of their citizenship.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2022

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