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A 15 year old British runaway is born in the UK and has children (all deceased) with a (ISIL) Dutchman in a war zone. The UK strips her of citizenship. She is now 24, stateless (of no citizenship) in a Syrian refugee camp. The article did not indicate she was involved in fighting. She was a child bride.

Source: https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/bride-loses-appeal-removal-uk-citizenship-107474004

When minors commit offenses, they are often handled differently than adults (i.e. leniency relative to adult sentences as they are not able to fully competent). Based on the article, a state can banish a runaway on relatively thin reasons. That being said, I would think that her rejection of a life in London, in favor ISIL is the unsaid key offense.

It would seem that statelessness on a mass scale, would create a significant burden on other countries. Given the recent trends in nationalism, I can imagine this scenario on a mass scale.

What, if any, global body or agreement governs citizenship statelessness?

If there is none: Is there consensus as to reasonable bright-lines, that when crossed constitute citizenship forfeiture?

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    "Based on the article, a state can banish a runaway on relatively thin reasons. That being said, I would think that her rejection of a life in London, in favor ISIL is the unsaid key offense." Begum (and others) joined a terrorist group overseas (Daesh/IS/ISIL). That's what the first line of the ABC article indicates: "A woman who traveled to Syria as a teenager to join the Islamic State group". And another line: "The group’s online recruitment program lured many impressionable young people to its self-proclaimed caliphate". I think the ABC article is a little thin.
    – Lag
    Feb 23 at 14:49
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    Notably, she had access to an alternative state identity, but chose not to exercise that option, presumably because she was informed (either in the press or by back-channels) that she would be unsuccessful. She's therefore stateless by choice.
    – Richard
    Feb 24 at 2:38
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    "Is there global law that governs X" – The answer is No for any value of X. There is no such thing as global law. There are, at best, multilateral treaties between a significant portion of states. Even if all 193 members and 2 observers of the United Nations agree, that's still not "global" since there are states which are neither UN members nor oberservers. Feb 24 at 20:47
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    @SimonRichter - UK law states that citizenship can be revoked if the person is also a citizen elsewhere. That includes unclaimed citizenship (e.g. via one's parents)
    – Richard
    Feb 25 at 14:30
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    There are no global laws. This isn't a thing.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 25 at 18:49

3 Answers 3

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The primary convention regarding statelessness is the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. As you might infer from the title, that convention isn’t in favor of people being rendered stateless, and its provisions make it very difficult for someone to be rendered stateless by the decisions of a contracting state. As far as I know, it does not grant special rights to children specifically.

A contracting state cannot revoke someone’s citizenship if that is the only citizenship to which they are entitled. If they are entitled to citizenship in a different state, there are several enumerated reasons a state can revoke their citizenship for (including, basically, aligning themselves with a foreign power).

In the linked story, the position of the UK government is that the defendant was not rendered stateless as she was a citizen of a different country.

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    – Pat W.
    Feb 24 at 12:26
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Is there global law that governs Denaturalization to stateless status for children?

Not specifically for children. There is the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and article 8 paragraph 1 of that convention prohibits depriving citizenship if it would make them stateless (with some exceptions specified in article 8 paragraph 2):

  1. A Contracting State shall not deprive a person of its nationality if such deprivation would render him stateless.

Less than half of the countries of the world are party to this convention (currently, it has only 75 parties), so this can hardly be said to be a general "global law". The UK is a party to this convention, so a better question would be whether the UK has acted in violation of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

(By the way, a correction of terminology: the situation you describe is not "denaturalization", but rather depriving someone of citizenship that they had. "Denaturalization" refers to declaring naturalization to have been invalid from the start, due to fraud in naturalization or the person not meeting the conditions for naturalization, so the person is considered to have never validly acquired citizenship in the first place. This is not what happened to Shamima Begum, because 1) she was not naturalized -- she was a British citizen from birth, and 2) the validity of her acquisition of British citizenship was never in question. The Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness would not protect against real "denaturalization" anyway, as article 8 paragraph 2(b) allows depriving citizenship that was obtained through fraud.)

Various provisions of the convention have been incorporated into domestic British law. Specifically, the provision prohibiting revoking citizenship if it will make the person stateless is found in section 40(4) of the British Nationality Act 1981 (as amended):

(4) The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless.

where section 40(2) is what allows the British government to deprive a British citizen of British citizenship:

(2) The Secretary of State may by order deprive a person of a citizenship status if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good.

(Though it should be noted that section 40(4A) provides a slightly looser restriction on deprivation of citizenship of naturalized British citizens -- their citizenship can be deprived even if it will them stateless, as long as they are able to become national of another country. I am not sure if this provision complies with the Convention. In any case, this is not relevant to Shamima Begum's case as she was not a British citizen by naturalization.)

So by the fact that the British government revoked her British citizenship, and this having being upheld in the British courts, they must have determine that the revocation was in compliance with the relevant sections of British law, i.e. that revoking her British citizenship did not make her stateless. If true, this would also mean that it was in compliance with the relevant sections of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

She is now 24, stateless

You're asserting that she's stateless, but that's the main factual dispute here. Is she really stateless? Or more specifically, did the revocation of her British citizenship make her stateless?

Based on my reading of Bangladesh's nationality law, she had Bangladeshi citizenship at the time of revocation of her British citizenship, so it did not make her stateless. Bangladesh's Citizenship Act 1951 (which was inherited from Pakistan's Citizenship Act 1951, with amendments to make it specific to Bangladesh after independence), section 5, provides that a child born abroad to a father who was a Bangladeshi citizen otherwise than by descent, automatically acquires Bangladeshi citizenship at birth:

  1. Subject to the provisions of section 3 a person born after the commencement of this Act, shall be a citizen of Bangladesh by descent if his 1[father or mother] is a citizen of Bangladesh at the time of his birth:

Provided that if the 2[father or mother] of such person is a citizen of Bangladesh by descent only, that person shall not be a citizen of Bangladesh by virtue of this section unless-

(a) that person's birth having occurred in a country outside Bangladesh the birth is registered at a Bangladesh Consulate or Mission in that country, or where there is no Bangladesh Consulate or Mission in that country at the prescribed Consulate or Mission or at a Bangladesh Consulate or Mission in the country nearest to that country; or

(b) that person's 3[father or mother] is, at the time of the birth, in the service of any Government in Bangladesh.

The part after "Provided that" applies only to cases where the parent was a Bangladeshi citizen by descent. In such cases, registration of the child is necessary for the child to acquire Bangladeshi citizenship. However, when the parent was a Bangladeshi citizen "otherwise than by descent" (e.g. by birth in Bangladesh or by naturalization), only the part before "Provided that" applies, and thus the child is automatically a Bangladeshi citizen at birth, without needing registration or any other action.

Prior to 2008, it was "father" instead of "father and mother". Since Shamima Begum was born before 2008, we should only be considering her father's status. I believe that her father was a Bangladeshi citizen otherwise than by descent, so Shamima Begum's Bangladeshi citizenship would have been automatic at birth, without needing registration.

There were several other cases of attempted revocation of British citizenship of children of Bangladeshis that were deemed to have been illegal by British courts, because it would make them stateless. However, the distinction between those cases and Shamima Begum's case is that the UK attempted to revoke their British citizenship after they turned 21, whereas the UK attempted to revoke Begum's British citizenship before she turned 21. Section 14 of Bangladesh's Citizenship Act provides for dual nationals to automatically cease to have Bangladeshi citizenship, but it does not apply to people under 21:

  1. (l) Subject to the provisions of this section if any person is a citizen of Bangladesh under the provisions of this Act, and is at the same time a citizen or national of any other country, he shall, unless he makes a declaration according to the laws of that other country renouncing his status as citizen or national thereof, cease to be a citizen of Bangladesh.

(1A) Nothing in sub-section (1) applies to a person who has not attained twenty-one years of his age.

(2) Nothing in sub-section (1) shall apply to any person who is a subject of an Acceding State so far as concerns his being a subject of that State.

So the people in those other cases also had dual British and Bangladeshi citizenship at birth, but they automatically lose their Bangladeshi citizenship when they turned 21, by operation of section 14 of Bangladesh's Citizenship Act, and therefore the UK can no longer revoke their British citizenship. However, Shamima Begum had not yet turned 21 when the UK made an order revoking her British citizenship, and therefore she still had Bangladeshi citizenship at that time, so she should not be stateless after the revocation.

I am not aware of any credible legal reasoning provided by the Bangladeshi government for why they claim that she was not a Bangladeshi citizen. One press release from the Bangladeshi Ministry of Foreign Affairs says:

Bangladesh asserts that Ms. Shamima Begum is not a Bangladeshi citizen. She is a British citizen by birth and has never applied for dual nationality with Bangladesh.

But the fact that she "has never applied for dual nationality" does not support the assertion that she is not a Bangladeshi citizen. From the section 5 of the law quoted above, an "application for dual nationality" (or any other kind of application) is not necessary for her to be automatically a Bangladeshi citizen at birth, if her father was a Bangladeshi citizen otherwise than by descent. And her dual citizenship did not cause her to cease being a Bangladeshi citizen before she turned 21 (when the order revoking her British citizenship was made), even without any "application for dual citizenship". Since she turned 21 after the order revoking her British citizenship, she should only have had Bangladeshi citizenship at that time, and thus she should not have lost Bangladeshi citizenship due to dual nationality.

The Bangladeshi ministers are not the ultimate arbiters of what Bangladeshi law means; it is Bangladeshi courts that interpret Bangladeshi law. Bangladeshi ministers can be sometimes wrong about Bangladeshi law, just like British ministers are sometimes wrong about British law, and the British government sometimes loses cases in court. So the Bangladeshi government's statement must be taken as just one position, that needs to be judged on the merits of its legal reasoning and consistency with the text of the law and existing legal Bangladeshi legal precedents, and not taken as a definitely correct statement of Bangladeshi law.

I am not aware of any Bangladeshi court ruling regarding the subject of whether Shamima Begum had Bangladeshi citizenship at the time of the revocation of her British citizenship. Nor do I think there will likely be such a court ruling, since both Begum and the Bangladeshi government take the position that she did not have Bangladeshi citizenship, and I can't imagine any likely situation where any other party would bring a case in Bangladeshi court arguing that she did have Bangladeshi citizenship.


One interesting question is, let's say hypothetically, at some point in the future, the Bangladeshi courts make a final ruling at some point in the future that says Shamima Begum was not a Bangladeshi citizen at the time of the revocation of British citizenship. (I don't know what the reasoning in this hypothetical ruling would be, but let's suppose that they interpret section 5 to require an application or registration for citizenship by descent, even in the case of a parent who is a Bangladeshi citizen otherwise than by descent, despite the text saying that the child "shall" be a Bangladeshi citizen without conditions.) One might ask, would that be sufficient to make the revocation of Shamima Begum's British citizenship illegal under British law or a violation of the Convention. My opinion is that it shouldn't, if the ruling is not consistent with existing law and precedent at the time of the revocation.

I acknowledge that each country has the right to interpret its own laws in its own way, and the exact same text may be interpreted by different countries to have different meanings. A country can change its law at any time, and can change its interpretation of a law at any time, for any reason, even if it's a political reason. If Bangladeshi courts were to interpret that section 5 requires registration even for children of citizens otherwise than by descent, then I agree that other countries should follow that interpretation in determining whether someone has Bangladeshi citizenship for cases from that point on.

However, retroactively applying such a ruling to past cases is problematic. This is because it is possible for a country (especially one where the judiciary is not independent) to deliberately misinterpret its law to advance a political purpose. (I am not suggesting that Bangladesh does this, but just that it is possible for a country to do this.) Even in countries where the judiciary is ostensibly independent, there are still sometimes accusations of political influence, or cases where it overrules its previous precedents. Imagine a Country A that prohibits dual nationals from being elected; a malicious Country B can suddenly interpret that Country A's officials were actually Country B citizens from birth (even if they had no connection to Country B); if Country A had to follow that interpretation, then it would retroactively disqualify its own officials.

Especially in a case where a person is "unwanted", a country may have a political incentive to interpret its law after the fact to claim that the person was not its national, to prevent having to take the person when another country revokes the person's citizenship. If a future ruling from another country of citizenship can retroactively invalidate a past revocation of citizenship, then there would never be a final resolution in the legality of a case of revocation of citizenship, as, even in a case where it appears that a person's other citizenship is obvious and certain, one will still need to beware of the potential for the other country to reinterpret it in the opposite way for political reasons in the future. The legality of an action (e.g. the revocation of citizenship) should not depend on future events.

If a court interpretation is sufficiently inconsistent with past precedents and sources of law, then it should be viewed as effectively a change in the law. Countries are allowed to change their law (including via re-interpretation), of course, but it should not affect other countries retroactively. For example, if Bangladeshi courts make a ruling that Shamima Begum does not have Bangladeshi citizenship, and if it is inconsistent with previous sources of law which say that she did have Bangladeshi citizenship, then it can be viewed as effectively a revocation of her Bangladeshi citizenship. If this "revocation" (i.e. the inconsistent ruling) happened after the British revocation of her British citizenship, then it should not affect the legality of the prior British revocation. In this view, it would be Bangladesh that made her stateless, not the UK.

Therefore, for revocation of citizenship to be functional, for the statelessness determination, the revoking country should only need to consider other countries' sources of law from before the revocation. In this case, the UK should make a good faith effort to interpret the Bangladeshi law based on existing Bangladeshi sources of law from prior to the revocation, consulting Bangladeshi precedents and consulting experts in how Bangladeshi law has been interpreted in the past. If they determine that she had Bangladeshi citizenship according to their examination of existing Bangladeshi sources of law from prior to the revocation, that should satisfy the provision in British law that the revocation not make her stateless.

Of course, Bangladeshi courts could disagree. Bangladeshi courts could say that their ruling is simply a reflection of how Bangladeshi law should always have been interpreted in the past, and there was no change in interpretation. In that case, we have a he-said/she-said situation, where different countries disagree on what the law of one of them used to be. The Convention basically breaks down in situations like this. Article 14 of the Convention provides that disputes between contracting states be submitted to the International Court of Justice by one of the parties, but Bangladesh is not a party to the Convention, so I don't think that this dispute can be submitted in that way. (Furthermore, it would be awkward for Bangladesh to represent Shamima Begum, who Bangladesh claims was never its national.) And I don't see any mechanism for an individual to bring a challenge to a state on the basis of the Convention.

If we let one country interpret another country's law unilaterally, we could have the opposite type of abuse -- i.e. a country says that it is not making someone stateless when revoking citizenship (by falsely interpreting another country's law to claim that the person has that country's nationality). But I don't see much point in doing this -- the Convention is voluntary, and a party can denounce the convention and withdraw from it anyway. So there is hardly any need to use some backhanded way to violate the Convention.

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Begum is NOT stateless.

Or, you're not stateless just because you don't like the citizenship you have.

Begum is a Bangladeshi citizen.

This is largely a TLDR summary of user102008's lengthy answer, wherein you will find references and gory details. If you like this, go upvote that.

The two major views of citizenship, and expat limits

Jus Soli means you're a citizen if you're born on the country's soil. That's not absolute or universal of course, but Begum acquired UK citizenship that way and partly being the child of an expat settled in UK.

Jus Sanguinis means you're a citizen if your parents were citizens. Again coarsely speaking, Begum acquired Bangladeshi citizenship that way.

But countries put common-sense limits on Jus Sanguinis where expatriates (people who have left the country, nominally for good) are concerned. Bangladesh law says:

  • The expatriate children, the first generation born out of Bangladesh, get automatic citizenship (by descent only). This applies to Begum.
  • The grandchildren, children of those who got citizenship by descent only, the second generation born outside Bangladesh, are entitled but must register to collect it. This would apply to Begum's children.

So Begum has automatic, guaranteed jus sanguinis Bangladeshi citizenship with no registration required, due to parents being born in Bangladesh. Did Begum lose it at age 21? No.

Bangladesh's rule on dual citizenship.

Bangladesh dislikes dual citizenship, and has an "in, or out" rule for adults. Having a foreign citizenship extinguishes ones Bangladeshi citizenship. But this only applies after age 21! That allows expat children (and registered grandchildren) to make their own adult choice.

By revoking Begum's UK citizenship prior to age 21, they actually guaranteed Begum's Bangladeshi citizenship.

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    "Jus Soli means you're a citizen if you're born on the country's soil. Begum acquired UK citizenship that way." Begum was born too late (August 1999) to acquire British citizenship by jus soli. This path to citizenship was abolished when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force in January 1983. Begum was a British citizen because she was born in Britain and her father had the status of "settled in the United Kingdom" (s1(1)(b) British Nationality Act 1981).
    – Lag
    Feb 26 at 8:53
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    @Lag this isn't saying that the UK has absolute Jus Soli (which iirc nowhere has, as children born to diplomats aren't citizens of the receiving nation anywhere I know of), but that it comes under Section 1 - Acquisition by birth or adoption., not Section 2 - Acquisition by descent.
    – Caleth
    Feb 26 at 15:47
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    @Lag good point, let me wind back that language. Feb 26 at 21:43
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    @Lag jus soli means acquisition of citizenship because of birth on a country's territory even if there are certain conditions that must be met. When Begum was born, the conditions for her to acquire British citizenship were met, and she therefore acquired British citizenship by jus soli.
    – phoog
    Feb 27 at 12:50

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