On Wednesday, a British court ruled against the appeal of Shamima Begum against the British government’s decision to remove her citizenship. Begum, who was born in the United Kingdom but now lives in a Syrian camp, left the country as a teenager to join the Islamic State terrorist group.
The case had already made waves in Britain, contrasting a complicated debate about the nature of citizenship with more emotive concerns about extremism and personal guilt. Begum has said she was groomed and trafficked, while her lawyers argue Britain is effectively making her stateless; the British government rejected this and claims Begum has Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents, but Bangladesh in turn denied this.
Begum’s case is increasingly far from unique. Britain is reported to have stripped the citizenship of at least 464 people in the last 15 years, leaving some without clear citizenship languishing in legal limbo. And it is clearly part of a global trend.
Nicaragua’s authoritarian government stripped the citizenship of at least 300 domestic critics in the past week, using a new constitutional change to force opponents of President Daniel Ortega to flee the country, leaving many stateless. The move sparked condemnation from the United States, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it “a further step toward solidifying an autocratic regime.”
However, as the Begum case shows, it’s not foreign to democracies. Authoritarian states like Russia and Belarus have also made recent moves to strip citizenships, but so has Ukraine, which last month stripped the citizenship of several former politicians. Australia and Israel are among other states that have moved forward with new laws in recent years, citing security concerns.
And it’s hardly unimaginable in the United States, where citizenship has been revoked for a variety of reasons over the decades. In 2020, the Trump administration opened a division at the Justice Department devoted to investigating and potentially revoking the citizenship of those not born in the country who obtained citizenship fraudulently, which led to fears that specific groups of people could be targeted. The Biden administration has been criticized for continuing to use this apparatus, rather than dissolving it.
Rights groups argue this is an unwelcome resurgence of a trend best left in the past. Though once relatively common, many countries moved away from the practice of revoking citizenship following World War II. During that period, the practice became linked to Nazi German persecution of minorities and political opponents.
Records show that tens of thousands of German Jews and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state had their citizenship stripped and property expropriated from 1933 onward. The German government last year passed a law that would ease the naturalization of these former citizens who had been “illegitimately deprived.”
The Nazi acts cast a pall over the practice of revoking citizenship. The United Nations would go on to list the right to citizenship as a fundamental human right, with international law prohibiting the arbitrary deprivation of nationality on racial, ethnic, religious or political grounds.
But slowly, since the turn of the century and the subsequent war on terrorism, it has resurged. A study released last year by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion found that since 2000, 1 in 5 countries introduced or expanded provisions to strip citizens of nationality for reasons related to “disloyalty,” with Europe emerging as a locus of legal change with new laws often related to security and terrorism.
Roughly 70 percent of the 190 countries studied in the report had some kind of law for the removal of citizenship due to disloyalty or treason. The report said it could not find full evidence for how these laws were put into practice, calling it a “black box” for information, but pointed to Bahrain as likely the worst example.
That country has revoked the citizenship of hundreds since 2012, according to rights groups. Human Rights Watch later said those deprived of citizenship by Bahrain included “human rights defenders, political activists, and journalists” and that the “vast majority” had been left stateless.
Leaving someone without citizenship is an open breach of international law. But the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion found that roughly three-quarters of the countries that allowed citizenships to be removed for disloyalty had no provisions to ensure that the policy did not result in statelessness.
Even where there are those provisions, as in the case of Britain, they can be bent. The British government has said that Begum is not being made stateless as she has a right to Bangladeshi citizenship through her parents, but Bangladesh has said she is not a citizen. Her citizenship is apparently so uncertain she can’t even be called stateless.
Maya Foa, the director of the human rights charity Reprieve, said that the British government has bound itself in a contradiction, arguing that intelligence shows Begum is a threat and must have her citizenship revoked, but also that there is insufficient evidence to convict her on terrorism charges in a British court.
Begum is expected to appeal Wednesday’s decision, which dealt only with the legality of whether Britain’s Home Secretary could revoke her citizenship.
While Britain is hardly the only country to try to wash its hands of citizens tied to the Islamic State, not all others have taken similarly extreme measures. Canada had also sought to avoid the repatriation of citizens being held in camps in Syria, allowing scores of detained Canadians to languish in grim conditions and only repatriating a small number of women and children.
But after a court in Ottawa this January ordered the Canadian government to begin the work to extradite four men home, the county softened its stance. Canada, notably, was one of the few countries to harden its laws against revoking citizenship in recent years, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau overturning his predecessor’s more restrictive measures and arguing that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
For many countries, the practice of revoking citizenship is flexible and highly bound in political debates. But it appears the trend is likely to follow the example of countries like Britain, Nicaragua and Bahrain. It may not be a return to the mass revocations seen in Nazi Germany quite yet — but it’s not so far off the banishments of old.