In the middle of a cold, crisp weekday afternoon, a group of activists and campaigners stood outside the Houses of Parliament with placards held high listening to speeches that railed against the UK government’s latest citizenship reforms, promoted as the New Plan for Immigration.
If the legislation passes, it would criminalise asylum seekers arriving in the country without permission and give Border Force officers powers to turn migrants away from the UK while at sea, which is currently illegal to do under international conventions.
The UK’s former home secretary Lord David Blunkett joined a host of other peers in criticising the government’s “delusional” immigration reforms, which rights organisations and lawyers have called “the biggest legal assault on international refugee law ever seen in the UK.”
Over seven hours of debate, both the efficacy and morality of the bill’s proposed treatment of the world’s most vulnerable people were repeatedly questioned by opposition party peers, including a former home secretary, Lord John Reid, who said the legislation addressed the symptoms but not the underlying causes behind migration, such as war, persecution, famine and climate change.
“You will not solve this problem by trying to put a stopper in the distance between Dover and Calais,” he said.
Clause 9 and fears of 'contingent citizenship'
While the rights of refugees may be distant enough from daily life in the UK so as not to illicit a strong public reaction, another clause in the bill, quietly inserted late last year is described as threatening natural born Britons’ citizenship and prompted hundreds of thousands of people online to oppose it.
Clause 9 of the bill allows for unprecedented powers to strip people of British citizenship without notifying them if it would “not be reasonably practicable” to do so, in the “interests of national security” or “otherwise in the public interest.” If the Bill passes, the clause would also have retrospective effect.
Campaigners and MPs say the loosening of requirements to notify people of their revocation is “unacceptable” and causing “intense concern” among people with dual nationality — whether or not they were born in the UK.
More than 300,000 people have signed a petition against Clause 9 after it was revealed that nearly six million British people with dual nationality, or who were born outside the UK, could have their citizenship jeopardised by the new bill, the majority of them from ethnic minorities.
In response to the petition, the Government said it recognises that deprivation of citizenship is a "very serious matter" and that the change "is simply intended to ensure existing powers can be used effectively in all appropriate circumstances and does not in any way represent a policy change in this important area of work."
Alba Kapoor, senior policy officer at the Runnymede Trust, has warned that under this clause, “Britishness” hinges on good behaviour.
In its Policy Paper published last month, the government gave “unacceptable behaviour such as the ‘glorification’ of terrorism” as a reason for deprivation under the “conducive to public good” grounds. However, this clarification has only heightened concerns across the political spectrum that Priti Patel’s raft of proposed laws, including the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Elections Bills, will curb the freedoms of everyday life in Britain.
Muslim Census, an independent organisation dedicated to using data to identify and highlight issues faced by the UK Muslim community, extrapolated that one out of every two Muslims — 1.5 million — in the country risks having their citizenship revoked without warning.
Britons from immigrant backgrounds face growing fears of alienation. “Certain citizens, despite being born and brought up in the UK, and having no other home, remain migrants in this country,” according to Frances Webber, vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations. “Their citizenship, and therefore all their rights, are precarious and contingent.”
Could you lose your British citizenship?
Deprivation of citizenship has been allowed in some form or another by the UK government for more than a century, since the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act. At the time, the law required foreign-born residents to carry an alien registration card and, in a confluence of both racist and sexist policy, automatically stripped British women of their nationality if they married an “alien”. Revocations of this nature were not applicable to British men who married foreign women.
Currently contained within the British Nationality Act 1981, a Briton’s citizenship can be revoked if they have another nationality and doing so is deemed “conducive to the public good”, or if the citizenship was obtained fraudulently.
Britain's home secretary can also deprive naturalised citizens of their citizenship — even if this results in their statelessness — if the home secretary finds “reasonable grounds that the person is able to become a citizen of another state”.
The power to remove citizenship confirmed in 2005 by Tony Blair’s Labour government, and was then used increasingly and with broader provisions, particularly during Theresa May’s tenure as home secretary.
According to Home Office data, from 2010 to 2018 — the latest figures on record — about 19 people a year were deprived of their citizenship on “public good” grounds. However, according to statistics provided by The Runnymede Trust, this discretion is increasingly being exercised with powers to strip citizenship; 27 times in total between 2006 and 2014, and in 2017 alone it was used 104 times.
One of the most recent prominent examples was that of Shamima Begum, who ran away from home as a British schoolgirl to join ISIS in Syria, and who remains in a Syrian refugee camp.
The Home Office says that the grounds for deprivation of citizenship are reserved “for those who pose a threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm,” but legal and human rights experts already consider this power — one of the broadest among the G20 countries — a contentious overreach. Scrapping the requirement to let those affected know would, critics say, make the home secretary’s powers even more draconian.
Who gets to stay British?
Underlying these concerns is the fear that this new legislation panders to increasing popular anti-immigration sentiment by making way for discriminatory policies.
One hundred civil society figures and organisations including Black Lives Matter UK, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Sikh Council UK and a number of mental health organisations have lambasted the bill for being “overtly racist” in an open letter sent to the House of Lords before its last debate.
The signatories called the legislation “the latest assault against migrant rights and the democratic rights of British citizens” and “a route to disenfranchisement and even deportation of people of colour.”
The Association of Muslim Lawyers has called the Bill “inherently racist” and charges the government’s proposed expansion of powers with creating a “two-tiered citizenship for ethnic minorities.”
“Crimes committed by ‘White English’ British citizens, no matter how heinous, will not face the possibility of being deprived of their citizenship. This is in effect a racist policy or agenda,” the Association said on its website.
Last month, analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics by the New Statesmen magazine revealed that two in every five people from non-white ethnic minorities are likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship, compared with just one in 20 people categorised as white (5 per cent). The largest proportion of white British citizens of immigrant backgrounds in the UK are Polish, followed by Irish and then American.
In a bid to assuage public concerns, the Home Office has sought to clarify that the new powers make no material difference to existing citizenship revocation laws and only change how people are notified. Campaigners have pointed out that this lack of knowledge would effectively deprive people of the right of appeal.
Barrister and director of the Good Law Project, Jolyon Maugham, has questioned the wide remit the legislation would give the home secretary.
“If it is not intended that they be used widely why draft them so widely?”
During the Wednesday debate reading, former terrorism laws watchdog Lord Anderson of Ipswich, a QC, raised similar concerns.
“Hints of future ministerial restraint of the sort that the Home Office has been energetically tweeting during this debate have no basis in this clause and are no substitute for properly defined laws,” said Lord Anderson.
“There is already apprehension, especially and understandably among people of mixed heritage, about this country’s unusually far-reaching powers to remove citizenship.
“The proposal to allow the use of those largely unmonitored powers to be kept secret, even from a subject who could perfectly easily be told, has predictably compounded those fears.”
Citizenship: A right or a privilege?
As the technicalities of Clause 9 are intellectualised and debated, a crucial shift in the way the Home Office views citizenship — that it is a “privilege, not a right” — emerged. Fundamentally challenging the relationship between citizens and country, regardless of their heritage, it suggests that citizenship is a “gift to hand down or snatch away.” It is this powerful ministerial discretion to decide whether or not someone belongs in and to the UK that is so chilling for some lawmakers.
For most raised in the UK with the understanding that citizenship is a fundamental human right woven into the social contract with our leaders, this raises the uncomfortable spectre that weaponising citizenship may be used as a way of keeping citizens in line.