By Lin Taylor
LONDON, Feb 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children of foreign fighters must have the right to belong to a country, lawyers and the United Nations said on Wednesday, after Britain stripped the citizenship of a teenage mother who travelled to Syria at 15 to join Islamic State.
The fate of Shamima Begum, who was found in a refugee camp in Syria last week, has illustrated the ethical, legal and security conundrum that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who swore to destroy the West.
With Islamic State depleted and Kurdish-led militia poised to seize the group's last holdout in eastern Syria, Western capitals are trying to work out what to do with battle-hardened foreign jihadist fighters and their wives and children.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said all children have "the right to a name, an identity and a nationality" according to international laws and governments had a responsibility to adopt safeguards that prevent a child from being born stateless.
"But where this occurs, those children need legal-aid and support to ensure no child is denied their right to citizenship," UNICEF said in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
There is no reliable estimate for the number of stateless people globally although the U.N. estimates it could be 12 million and wants to end statelessness by 2024 as it can leave people with no access to basic rights like education and health.
Begum, who gave birth to a son at the weekend, was discovered earlier this month in Syria by a British journalist.
She has told reporters she wants to return to Britain but has appeared unrepentant in several interviews and her fate has dominated headlines this week.
British law allows the government to deprive a person of citizenship when it is conducive to the public good although such decisions should not render the person stateless if they were born as British citizens.
With regards Begum's case, a spokesman from Britain's interior ministry said the priority was "the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here".
Police in Bangladesh said they were checking whether Begum was a Bangladeshi citizen as both her parents come from there.
Her fate has sparked heated national debate with Britain's opposition Labour Party saying the government's decision was wrong.
Begum's family lawyer said he could seek to challenge the move to strip her of citizenship.
Amal de Chickera, co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, said Britain should have taken Begum and her child and put her under investigation as it had an obligation to look after the baby and children in similar cases.
"It's deeply concerning to see this happening to a baby that's just a few days old," he said in a phone interview.
"One must question the effectiveness of this measure: does citizenship-stripping really strengthen or protect national security? Or can it potentially lead to further radicalisation?"
Citizenship expert Devyani Prabhat from the University of Bristol said children of foreign fighters were at greater risk as they were in conflict zones with no country to return to.
"Their children, such as Shamina's child, will still retain the right to be British but they will effectively lose any means of re-entering the UK and be stuck in war zones," said Prabhat.
"If they cannot access their citizenship rights because of cancellation of their parents' citizenship, their welfare needs to be assessed distinctly from that of the adults."
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Jason Fields and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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