Shamima Begum: Government ‘shirking responsibility’ by refusing to repatriate Isis detainees, Tory MP says

Andrew Mitchell warns that current strategy is leaving former Isis members ‘swilling around in ungoverned spaces’

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Wednesday 15 September 2021 21:58
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Shamima Begum says she would ‘rather die’ than go back to Isis

The government has been accused of “shirking its responsibility” towards Shamima Begum and other former Isis members from the UK.

Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, who co-chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficked Britons in Syria, said the continued refusal to repatriate them for trial was also “making us all less safe”.

“As part of our leadership and example as one of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council we really should not leave these people swilling around in ungoverned spaces, but follow the advice and example of the Americans and many other countries in repatriating our own nationals,” he told The Independent.

Mr Mitchell said there was a “strong case” that Begum and other girls and women who travelled to Isis territory were trafficked for sex and are victims of modern slavery.

He added: “Since when was a schoolgirl too much for the British justice system? Not only is the UK out of step with our allies who are repatriating their citizens, it is also beneath us as a nation to shirk our responsibility for British nationals and, as security experts have warned, it makes us all less safe.”

A recent court case has heard how Isis supporters around the world have been raising money for smugglers to spring jihadis out of camps such as the one holding Begum.

They are operated by the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have repeatedly appealed for the UK and other countries to repatriate detainees and warned that they may not be able to secure the camps in the event of incursions by Turkey or regime forces.

Maya Foa, the director of legal charity Reprieve, said that detainees could face “torture and the death penalty” if transferred to Iraq or parts of Syria controlled by Bashar al-Assad.

“Britain stands in contrast to now a majority of other countries who had nationals in north-east Syria by not repatriating them,” she added. “The majority of the British people held there are children, followed by women and then men. Every other country has developed some kind of an approach. The US, our closest security ally, has said we should repatriate people in the interests of security.”

Ms Foa accused the government of having a “do nothing” approach and putting a political agenda “above the interests of security and justice”.

The argument that Begum may have been trafficked to Syria as a child to be sexually exploited has been advanced by her lawyers in a protracted legal battle to return to Britain.

The former Bethnal Green schoolgirl, who left London for Syria aged 15, is among an unknown number of suspected Isis members to be stripped of their British citizenship as part of efforts to keep them out of the UK.

In a new interview from a Syrian detention camp, she claimed she could be “an asset” in the fight against terror and wanted to help the government.

Begum, now 22, told ITV's Good Morning Britain: “I regret every, every decision I've made since I stepped into Syria and I will live with it for the rest of my life ... all I can say is I'm sorry and just give me a second chance.“

The government has repeatedly suggested it is unable to successfully prosecute Begum and other former Isis members detained in Syria, but she said she was willing to stand trial and added: ”The only crime I committed was being dumb enough to join IS.”

Membership of a proscribed terrorist organisation is a terror offence punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

In February, the Supreme Court ruled that Begum could not return to the UK to fight her case, which sits with the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC).

In June, her lawyers argued the Home Office had a legal duty to investigate whether Begum was a victim of trafficking when her citizenship was revoked on security grounds in 2019.

Begum also wants to challenge the removal of her British citizenship on the grounds that it made her “de-facto stateless” and that the decision was procedurally unfair.

Of around 900 people who left Britain to engage in the conflict in Syria and Iraq since 2014, around a fifth had been killed and 40 per cent have returned.A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government's top priority remains maintaining our national security and keeping the public safe. We do not routinely comment on individual cases.”

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