The recent global debates on ‘citizenship stripping’ for associates of the Islamic State terrorist group have been characterised by emotive responses propagated by the Western tabloid press. Knee-jerk reactions tend to dominate in place of nuanced discussions and evidence-driven policy articulations. Citizenship stripping has been considered to constitute a ‘return of banishment’ – that is, exiling problematic individuals beyond the borders of a limited political community. Recent practices of citizenship stripping by states do not only reinforce their own borders against those they consider to be a national security threat, with implications for processes of justice, as highlighted in the Shamima Begum case. They also institute and maintain other systems of outsourced governance and externalised border control, e.g. the use of detention in camps run by non-state Kurdish actors in Northern Syria.
However, rarely have the perspectives of Syrians on this issue been heard, despite the fact that their lives are evidently more directly affected by these citizenship stripping policies since they are left to manage the humanitarian, security and social impacts of former ISIS members now stranded in their country. This article reflects on interviews with Syrian stakeholders (everyday citizens, [formerly] stateless individuals and officials) in order to challenge the dominant, often lazily articulated narratives circulating on citizenship stripping as a tool to protect (Western) borders. Indeed, leading officials of the Kurdish-led administration that has picked up the burden of managing the security and welfare of captured ISIS members and their relatives who are citizens of foreign states present compelling arguments against such practices. For example, Bedran Çiya Kurd, Deputy Co-President of the Self Administration of North and East Syria (SANES), stated in an interview conducted in April 2021 that ‘Revoking the citizenship is not a solution. The country that revokes the citizenship of one of its members who was engaged with ISIS prevents that person from re-entering its territory, but this is not a sufficient security cordon since it does nothing to address the ideology. This is the biggest challenge facing all of us. Responsibility must be taken.’
Implications for Syrian statelessness discourse
While accounting for only a relatively small number of affected individuals in contrast to Syrian children at risk of statelessness due to being born in displacement contexts since 2011, these ‘citizenship stripping’ cases have had an important impact on Syria’s statelessness landscape in a discursive sense. Despite the history of citizenship stripping in Syria, particularly the 1962 census that rendered 120,000 Kurds and their ancestors (amounting to approximately 300,000 people by 2011) stateless, in a Google search for ‘Syria citizenship stripping’, the first 40 hits all relate to the ISIS terrorism context. No doubt there is an overpowering recency effect at play here. However, the power of the international press fascination is also skewing and re-defining the notion of statelessness in Syria. Indeed, the Syrian statelessness landscape – as viewed through the international medium of Google (with hits comprising media articles, think tank policy papers and academic articles) – has now been extended to cover, and in fact been dominated by, Western jurisdictions.
Media coverage has carefully tracked the developments in the cases where individuals are at risk of statelessness resulting from state practices of ‘citizenship stripping’: from the decisions to revoke, to the back-and-forth rulings of various appeals courts and commissions, sometimes resulting in the eventual restoration of citizenship. In a recent piece of legal analysis, Allison Harvey dissects the procedural and legalistic technicalities of the high-profile Shamima Begum case in the UK. In doing so, she is undoubtedly correct to question the impacts this precedent could have on further statelessness cases. Indeed, this represents a case of strategic importance, and is certainly a valid subject for academic enquiry and reflection in view of the questions it poses for the (UK) legal system more broadly. However, it is also necessary to consider the wider implications of media coverage and policy debates around such judgements on wider discourses on statelessness.
In light of prevalent media discourse about deprivation of citizenship of ISIS associates, a number of stateless Syrians have indicated concerns about stigmatising associations of statelessness with terrorism in popular consciousness. One stateless Kurd stated ‘it is not good for us to be judged in the same way. Many people have heard about ISIS members losing their nationality but they haven’t heard about how the Syrian government discriminated against us for decades by depriving us of our citizenship. I am afraid people might think I have committed crimes like they have and that is why I am stateless.’ This, by association, fosters an implicit misconception that stateless people are inherently culpable and dangerous. Likewise, a stateless Palestinian from Syria told Reuters: ‘If I say I’m stateless I worry if people will think I’ve done something so bad in life that I’ve had my nationality taken away.’ The logic is further reinforced by the popular discourse around revocation as a punishment, e.g. arguments that Asma Al-Assad should lose her British citizenship for facilitating war crimes.
Currently, supposedly liberal Western states are not using citizenship stripping practices to further their liberal values of global democracy, but to ‘dump’ their problems on another part of the world. As a secondary injustice, the coverage by (tabloid) media in Western states is further contributing to a domination of statelessness discourse by narratives associated with terrorism, to the detriment of other stateless individuals. The complex reality of the issue of statelessness must be reflected, with sensitivity for all those affected by it.
Thomas McGee is a PhD researcher in the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at University of Melbourne’s Law School, Australia. His research focuses on Syria’s changing statelessness landscape. Speaking Arabic and Kurdish, Thomas has worked for a decade as an analyst and adviser on humanitarian and development programmes implemented in Syria and in Iraq.