The British schoolgirl who ran away to join Isil has appealed for public sympathy following the birth of her son, as a row intensifies over whether she should be allowed to return to the UK.
Shamima Begum, 19, went to Syria in 2015 and was discovered there in a refugee camp last week, heavily pregnant and insisting she wanted to go home.
The birth of her child over the weekend prompted calls for the baby to be subject to care proceedings should Begum be able to return from Syria, as it emerged that the Family Division of the High Court had presided over cases involving at least 150 children deemed at risk of radicalisation in the last five years.
In an interview with Sky News recorded at the Kurdish-controlled camp she fled to from the last pocket of Isil-controlled territory, Begum said there was “no evidence” she had done anything wrong and she could not see “any reason” why her child should be taken from her when she had simply been living as a housewife.
Speaking just hours after giving birth, her baby at her side, she said she had no regrets about fleeing the family home in Bethnal Green, east London, to support Isil, claiming the experience had made her “stronger, tougher”.
She said she could see a future for herself and her son, whom she has named Jarah after one of the two children she lost to malnutrition and disease in the last three months, “if the UK are willing to take me back and help me start a new life again and try and move on from everything that’s happened in the last four years”.
She added: “I wouldn’t have found someone like my husband [Yago Riedijk, 26, a Muslim convert from the Netherlands] in the UK. I had my kids, I had a good time there.”
Her other children, Jarah and Surayah, a daughter, died aged 18 months and nine months. Asked how she felt about the debate over whether she should be allowed to return home, Begum said: “I feel a lot of people should have sympathy for me, for everything I’ve been through.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into when I left, I just was hoping that maybe for the sake of me and my child they let me come back.
“I can’t live in this camp forever. It’s not really possible.”
In the interview, Begum apologised for the first time to her family for running away, and said that though she knew it was “like a big slap in the face” for her to ask after she had previously rejected their calls for her to return, “I really need their help”.
Tim Loughton, deputy chairman of the home affairs select committee, said he thought it “extraordinary” that Begum was asking to come back while showing “not a scintilla of regret”.
The Conservative MP added: “My own feeling is in line with most others, that she has made her bed and should lie in it. But the law must prevail and we are probably going to have to let her back.
“However, I think her child should be subjected to care proceedings due to the threat of radicalisation.” He said a forthcoming report by the Henry Jackson Society disclosed that the Family Division of the High Court had presided over cases involving at least 150 children deemed at risk of radicalisation in the last five years.
Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, said last week that he would “not hesitate” to prevent the return of anyone who supported terrorist organisations abroad.
He reiterated his stance in a Sunday newspaper article, expressing compassion for any child born or brought into a conflict zone, but stating that the safety and security of children living in this country had to be the priority.
Jeremy Wright, the Culture Secretary and former Attorney General, said Britain was “obliged” to take back British citizens.
However, he added: “That doesn’t mean that we can’t put in place the necessary security measures to monitor their activities. It doesn’t mean either that we can’t seek to hold them to account for their behaviour thus far.”
He said the nationality of Begum’s baby was a “difficult question”, but the pair’s health was the most pressing matter. “In the end she will have to answer for her actions,” he added. “So I think it is right that if she’s able to come back to the UK that she does so on the understanding that we can hold her to account for her behaviour thus far.”
Begum said she was attracted to Isil by videos that she had seen online, which she said showed “how they’ll take care of you”.
She said she knew that the group carried out beheadings, but that she “was OK with it at first. I started becoming religious just before I left and from what I heard Islamically that is all allowed”.
“At first it was nice,” she said of life in the so-called Islamic State. “It was how they showed it in the videos, you know, you come, make a family together, but then things got harder.
“We had to keep moving and moving and moving. The situation got fraught.” Begum acknowledged that it would be “really hard” to be rehabilitated after everything she had been through.
“I’m still in that mentality of planes over my head, emergency backpacks, starving… it would be a big shock to go back to the UK and start again,” she said.
Writing in The Sunday Times, Mr Javid said that decisions about what to do with potential returnees had to be made on a case-by-case basis, based on the “facts of each case, the law and the threat to national security”.
He added: “I think about the children that could in future get caught up in dangerous groups if we don’t take a firm stance against those who support them… And that means sending a message to those who have backed terrorism: there will be consequences.”
His comments were described as “sick” by Begum’s lawyer on Sunday. Tasnime Akunje told Radio 4’s The World This Weekend: “We are talking about a newborn baby who poses no risk or threat to anybody, [who is] not even cognitive, and yet he’s speaking about a child who’s a British citizen in terms of a security threat.”
Mr Akunje suggested that the birth of Begum’s child increased pressure on the British authorities to allow her to return home.
He also revealed that Begum’s family has struggled to make direct contact with her and is now considering the possibility of getting out to Syria themselves.
Her family has indicated that if she is jailed for supporting a terrorist group, they want to step in and raise her son themselves.