Shamima Begum was a victim of trafficking when she left the UK as a 15-year-old schoolgirl to travel to Syria to join ISIS, a court has heard.
Lawyers for Ms Begum, who is fighting a decision to remove her British citizenship on national security grounds, argue that she was groomed online by the terrorist group and “enticed” to travel with two school friends in February 2015.
Ms Begum, now aged 21, has been barred from returning to the UK to fight her case and is currently in the Al Roj camp run by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, where conditions are described as dire and violence is common. The court was told on Friday that at least two British nationals have died there.
Within days of arriving in Syria in 2015, Ms Begum married a Dutch ISIS fighter, who has also been detained by anti-ISIS forces. The pair had three children, all of whom died.
Her lawyer Samantha Knights told a hearing of a specialist immigration court that there was evidence of trafficking which should be investigated by the government.
“The counter-terrorism unit has suspicions as to coercion and control, which, of themselves give rise to the need to investigate the issue of trafficking,” she told the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.
She said the government had failed to assess whether she had been trafficked for “sexual exploitation and forced marriage".
Judge Robert Jay told the hearing that it was unclear what the trafficking amounted to, “apart from the fact she was 15 at the time and enticed to Syria by a combination of ideology on her part ... and what she saw online”.
He said it may not have gone beyond the fact that “she was 15 and really stupid because she was 15”.
The fate of Ms Begum has divided legal and political opinion since she was found by a journalist in a camp in February 2019. The UK’s highest court last year ruled in favour of the Home Secretary who opposed her return to the UK to fight her case on national security grounds.
But rights groups say the fact she remains languishing in Syria means that she cannot effectively fight her case or brief her lawyers – leading to continuing delays in the case.
Her case has implications for other women held in the camps who are seeking to return to Britain.
British MPs are examining the scale of ISIS trafficking operations after 50 British women and children were identified in camps in Syria. The UK government largely refuses to repatriate adult Britons who have joined ISIS, but has brought back a few unaccompanied children.
The US estimates that there are 2,000 foreign fighters in Syrian camps and 10,000 of their relatives.
Ms Begum’s lawyer expressed concern that the case could be “kicked into the long grass for potentially years” while she remains in a dangerous camp. She wants the case to be heard in November.
Judge Jay said that the case had to be brought to a resolution in a reasonable time or there would be “real questions about what this commission is doing”.
He will rule at a later date when a hearing should take place, and on whether she will be allowed to use the trafficking argument.
Lawyers for the Home Office said Ms Begum should not be allowed to claim that she was a victim of trafficking as it was “entirely speculative.”
Ms Begum had never made the claim during numerous media interviews, said lawyer David Blundell.
The hearing is also considering the case of three other women – known only as C8, C10 and D4 – at the Al Roj camp. Two of the women have children and the third is a grandmother with serious health issues, the hearing was told.