It would take a heart of stone – and occasionally I possess just such an organ – not to feel sympathy for Shamima Begum after she lost a third baby, her son Jarrah, barely three weeks old, in a Syrian refugee camp. But should we feel guilt as well as compassion for leaving the child – all unbeknown to him, a British citizen and possibly Dutch too – to fester in the camp occupied by IS refugees? More precisely, how responsible should the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, feel, having deprived Miss Begum of her British citizenship? The BBC news all day long has linked him to the death: criticism of Javid as child dies. That’s its line. Diane Abbott has been keen to draw a link. She tweeted that ‘an innocent child has died as a result of a British woman being stripped of her citizenship. This is callous and inhumane.’ Later she declared that the Home Secretary had ‘behaved shamefully’, going as far as she can to assign moral culpability to him. The aid agencies like Save the Children have called on Britain to take responsibility for its citizens.
The situation in which Miss Begum finds herself is, of course, as a result of the elimination of IS forces from the last rump of its caliphate, a far bigger story, and the culmination of the entire tragedy that began when IS took Mosul in 2014. It is the happy ending of one miserable chapter of history, that of the IS caliphate: there are hundreds of thousands of casualties of that struggle and it suggests a curious loss of perspective for Britain to focus obsessively on one of them. There are still hundreds, reportedly thousands, of Yazidi sex slaves, for instance, in the possession of IS and they, unlike Miss Begum, did not sign up as volunteers for the caliphate. It’s the fortunes of war that are the immediate cause of this unfortunate baby’s death; that, and his mother’s decision to sign up as a jihadist bride, is the actual reason for her present situation in a camp where babies die of pneumonia in sub-zero temperatures at night. It wouldn’t have happened in the NHS, but her remoteness from it is, I am afraid, her own doing.
In fact, I disagreed with the Home Secretary’s decision to strip Shamima Begum of her citizenship, on the basis that it is for European countries to take responsibility for their own extremists and besides, Syria has problems enough of its own without having to cope with the unpleasant individuals who volunteered to join the caliphate of their own accord. I was indeed rather moved by her father’s plea to Britain – from his village in Bangladesh – to forgive his daughter; he at least acknowledges the harm she has caused, though he’s pushing his luck a bit to blame immigration for not spotting that she was using her sister’s passport when she left for Syria four years ago.
So what is Diane Abbott saying? That British consular officials should have parachuted into Syria – where there is no diplomatic representation – to pluck Miss Begum from her camp, leaving other mothers and children to fester there? It would probably have been possible – journalists plainly get into the camp – but to put diplomats into harm’s way to reclaim the baby is taking the country’s duty to its nationals rather too far. Miss Begum’s situation is tragic, but she took the decisions that resulted in her children’s deaths when she joined IS; it is not for the government to rescue her and her family from the consequences of her wrongdoing and from the consequences of war. There are other innocent victims of the caliphate besides its own children; if we have time, money, compassion I should like to see it expended on them. Mr Javid was wrong, I think, in his decision. But in any way responsible for the death? No.