Personae non grata — how ISIS members are being stripped of their citizenship and potentially left stateless
Neil Prakash, Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana share a lot in common.
All three were born in western countries. They all left their home countries to join Islamic State. And they have all now been stripped of their citizenships.
Mr Prakash was born in Melbourne, Australia. He converted to Islam in 2012 and left for Syria in 2013. Ms Begum was born in the United Kingdom and flew to Syria with two friends in 2015, aged just 15. Ms Muthana was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and joined Islamic State four years ago, aged 20.
In 2014 the Australian Government cancelled Mr Prakash’s passport, and in December 2018 it revoked his Australian citizenship. Under amendments made to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 in 2015, the responsible government minister may strip dual citizens of their Australian citizenship if they fight for a declared terrorist organisation.
The Australian Government claims that Mr Prakash has Fijian citizenship through his father, but Fiji denies Mr Prakash is a Fijian citizen, and it does not allow dual citizenship over the age of 21.
Under both Australian and international law, citizenship cannot be revoked if that would render a person stateless — that is, without a nationality. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which entered into force in 1975, does provide for exceptions if a state party declares it intends to keep those exceptions, but Australia has not made such a declaration.
It seems likely that after Turkey has finished its prosecution of Mr Prakash, he will be extradited to Australia to face a possible further trial.
Whether he remains an Australian citizen or not will depend on a number of factors. He is not currently a Fijian citizen, it appears. Having acquired Australian citizenship at birth, he would have had to renounce his Australian citizenship before the age of 21 to maintain his Fijian citizenship.
Ms Begum is in a similar situation. The United Kingdom has quite aggressively expanded the Government’s “denationalisation” powers in recent years and, unlike Australia, the prospect of statelessness is not necessarily a barrier (although the Australian Government has indicated its intention to align Australian law with British law in this area).
Under the British Nationality Act 1982, the Home Secretary may revoke citizenship where there are “reasonable grounds for believing that the person is able … to become a national of [another] country or territory”. As a result, a person could become stateless if, in fact, they are unable to become a citizen of another country.
Ms Begum recently had a child and wants to return to the UK, but the Home Secretary informed her family that he has decided to strip her of her British citizenship.
The British Government claims that Ms Begum has, or is eligible for, Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother. Under Bangladeshi law, if Ms Begum’s mother is a Bangladeshi national, so is Ms Begum.
However, the Bangladeshi authorities have asserted that Ms Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen.
There is also speculation that she may have acquired Dutch citizenship through her husband, who is reportedly a citizen of the Netherlands, and Ms Begum has indicated she will try this approach if she loses an appeal against the Home Secretary’s decision.
The situation for Ms Muthana is very different, because there are claims she never held American citizenship, despite being born in New Jersey.
Her father was a diplomat from Yemen, and children born in the US to foreign diplomats are not automatically considered American citizens. But Ms Muthana’s lawyer argues that her father was no longer a diplomat when Ms Muthana was born.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claims that Ms Muthana is not an American citizen, does not have an American passport, the right to an American passport, and does not have a visa to allow her entry to the US.
But Ms Muthana says she received an American passport, and was shown in Islamic State propaganda videos holding what is purportedly an American passport.
Legally and constitutionally, the US cannot simply revoke the citizenship of a natural-born American — in Ms Muthana’s case, she must either not have citizenship, or intentionally renounce it herself.
In all three cases, there is a high risk of statelessness. Fiji denies Mr Prakash is a Fijian citizen; Bangladesh denies Ms Begum is a Bangladeshi citizen; and it is not yet clear whether Yemen recognises Ms Muthana as a citizen.
Whether they do, in fact, become stateless, will depend on the outcome of the appeals processes, which will determine whether they hold a second nationality.