The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) (an independent educational charity specializing on race relations throughout the world) released their latest report on Sunday 11th September 2022 titled “Citizenship: From Right to Privilege”. In 2021, as the Nationality and Borders Bill was going through parliament, the IRR drew attention to Clause 9 of the bill which stipulates that British citizens can be deprived of their citizenship, without notice, in the interest of “national security”1. Beginning with the recent Clause 9 debate, the IRR report argues that citizenship stripping is a historical trend, shaped by colonialism, which has been used strategically in the UK to distinguish between different kinds of “British citizens”. Ultimately, this has resulted in the creation of “second-class citizens” which has disproportionately affected Muslims and other communities who are most commonly the recipients of demonising and stigmatising media coverage, political statements and policies2.
Frances Webber, the vice-chair of IRR and report author stated:
“The message sent by the legislation on deprivation of citizenship since 2002 and its implementation largely against British Muslims of South Asian heritage is that, despite their passports, these people are not and can never be ‘true’ citizens, in the same way that ‘natives’ can”3.
Background to Clause 9 and reception
Clause 9 was added to the Nationality and Borders bill in October 2021 (and passed in April 2022), which previously had provisions designed to enable the granting of citizenship4. Whilst the House of Lords removed the clause in January 2022, it was reinstated by the House of Commons in March 2022. Those potentially affected by the clause include up to six million British citizens who have access to a second citizenship. In practice, this is more likely to affect Black, Asian and minority ethnic citizens, where “two in five of whom [already] have or have access to another citizenship”5.
Contempt for the clause erupted on social media, in the press and in parliament. For example, Labour MP Imran Hussein questioned the then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “When are you coming for me?”6. Conservative peer Lord Moylan further commented that “when something as important as nationality and nationality is treated by our own Government like a mere driving licence or library ticket that can be cancelled by administrative fiat, we are all poorer”7.
Protests also occurred outside of UK Parliament, condemning the bill as a “tool of divide”8, with organisations such as Migrants Organise (provides advice and support for individuals affected by hostile immigration policies), Media Diversified (a non-profit challenging the homogeneity of UK media voices), Sikh Council UK amongst the protestors. Other organisations, including Reprieve (legal action NGO), the Muslim Association of Britain (organisation promoting the accepted understanding of Islam with its spiritual teachings), Rights and Security International (organisation documenting human rights abuses in the name of national security) also mobilised to oppose the clause and activists and community groups set up a parliamentary petition with over 300,000 people signing for the removal of the clause from the bill9. UK Ministers in support of the clause defended it on the basis that it would only affect “a tiny handful of people” and that the “resort to deprivation was rare”10.
The passing of the Nationality and Borders bill has brought to light that citizenship in the UK has become “a privilege, not a right”11.
History of deprivation powers in the UK.
Prior to 2002, the use of the UK government’s deprivation powers (the power to remove someone’s citizenship) had remained constant in the UK and were hardly used, with no one being deprived of citizenship (except if obtained fraudulently) f. Since 2003, there have been at least 217 deprivations with 104 removals occurring in 2017 alone after the collapse of Daesh in Syria12.The majority of those who have been deprived of citizenship since 2003 have been British Muslims13, as Arun Kundani (Professor at New York University) states “the equal citizenship of Muslims is, in practice, precariously dependent on their being able to prove their allegiance to ill-defined Western values”14.
Previously, British Citizens by registration or naturalisation, could only lose their citizenship if it had been obtained by fraud, “displayed disloyalty or disaffection”, or if they “had traded with, communicated with or assisted the enemy in time of war”, had been sentenced to 12+ months imprisonment within five years of becoming British, or it would be “conducive to the public good to remove their citizenship”, meaning those who are considered to pose a threat to the UK. 15. But they would not be rendered stateless as a result.
Since 2022, three main Acts of Parliament changed the deprivation powers of the UK government:
- 2002 – With the he Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, deprivation provisions were extended to those Born British as well as naturalised and registered citizens.
- 2006 – The Immigration and Asylum Act reduced the threshold for deprivation of one’s citizenship to the same as for deportation. These changes were made in response to the July 2005 London bombings.
- 2014- The Immigration Act allowed the removal of UK citizenship from people with no other citizenship, provided they were able to acquire another if they had done “anything prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK”16.
The IRR notes that the focus of deprivation powers has shifted from actions a person has committed to “more nebulous and undefined criteria”17 which carries with it the risk of arbitrary deprivations and discriminatory implementation. Citizenship scholar Matthew Gibney described the UK deprivation of citizenship as being “reliant too much on the judgement (or hunches) of a politically elected official”18. This danger is enhanced by denying any challenges to the decision by those subjected to citizenship deprivation.
Impact of Deprivation
According to the Committee of Human Rights, the deprivation of one’s citizenship can “expose subjects to inhuman and degrading treatment, loss of liberty, loss of family life and loss of one’s family home”19 . For example, Mahdi Hashi a Somali born Muslim came to the UK from Somalia age five where he was granted asylum and later became a British citizen along with his family 20. In 2012, when Hashi had moved back to Somalia, a letter was sent to his parents UK address containing a deprivation order from the then home secretary, Theresa May, stating Mahdi Hashi was “to be stripped of his citizenship on the grounds that he was involved in Islamic extremism”21.Because Somalia does not have a British consulate, Hashi crossed the border to Djibouti where he was arrested and told he was not British. As Somalia does not allow dual citizenship, he ceased to be Somali when he became British and was rendered stateless with no access to consular services. He was then flown to New York and charged with conspiring to commit acts of terrorism22. Whilst Hashi’s case was taken up by lawyer Helena Kennedy in 2013, two years later the judicial process ended with Hashi losing the appeal. The new deprivation law implemented at the time stated citizenship deprivation was possible “if the secretary of state has reasonable grounds for believing that the person is able, under the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, to become a national of such a country of territory”23.
A more recent example is the case of Shamima Begum, a British born woman who left the UK in 2015, at age 15, and joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS/Daesh). Begum was found in 2019, by a British journalist at the al-Hawl refugee camp in Northern Syria. Because she pleaded to be able to return to the UK, Begum quickly became a hate figure: a columnist for the Telegraph wrote “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” with similar articles being written for the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. The then Home Secretary Sajid Javid declared that he would stop the return of anyone who supported terrorist groups abroad and six days after Begum’s interview he revoked her citizenship which rendered her stateless24. Mitigating factors against Begum’s deprivation, such as being a child when she left for Syria, the life-threatening conditions in the camp, the lack of connection with Bangladesh (of which she was said to be a citizen but denied by Bangladesh authorities), her birth and upbringing in the UK, or the fact that deprivation would leave her and her new-born child stranded indefinitely, were disregarded25.
The message sent by deprivation legislation since 2002 (that is largely implemented against British Muslims of south Asian heritage) is that, despite their passports, they will never be “true” citizens in the same way “natives”26. This message also can feed into a sense of “entitlement and superiority” for those on the far Right, “who feel justified and vindicated in their racist attacks and ‘crusaded against Islam’ as they see politicians repeating the message”27. This racialised citizenship, however, does not operate in a vacuum. As the IRR argue it exists in conjunction with a “hostile environment”, anti-refugee and migrant policies and discriminatory policing practices which result in Black and Brown British citizens having to prove themselves to be in the country to access housing, employment, etc.28.
Muslims as suspects
The IRR note that the deprivation provisions of 2002 onwards are only one aspect of the measures that have turned British Muslims into a “suspect community”. This treatment has gone hand in hand with the debate – amplified by politicians and the British media – on Muslims’ loyalty to “British values”. For example, following 9/11 the Blair government enacted over 200 pieces of anti-terrorist legislation targeting Islamist extremism, the 2014 Trojan horse affair (an allegation that teachers and governors in certain Birmingham schools were being overthrown and replaced by people running schools according to conservative Islamic principles – see Euro-Islam “The Trojan Horse Affair: The call for an independent inquiry”), and the Prevent strand of the government’s Contest counter-terrorism policy (see Euro-Islam “The People’s Review of Prevent: Key Findings”). On Prevent, the Muslim Council of Britain stated that this strand of Contest in particular has “led to a perception that Muslims are not being treated as equal citizens and are instead apart from the rest of society”29.
Such policies and statements, along with media coverage, have created and maintained a hostile climate in which Islamophobic attacks thrive. According to Dr Stephen Jones (University of Birmingham) and Dr Amy Unsworth’s (University College London) 2022 report, support for prohibiting migration to the UK is higher for Muslims than any other religious or ethnic group, and Muslim’s are the UK’s second “least liked” group after Gypsy and Irish Travellers (see Euro-Islam “The Dinner Table Prejudice: Islamophobia in Contemporary Britain”). In June 2022 a report titled “Attacks Upon Mosques and Islamic Institutions in the UK” also showed that almost half of mosques or Islamic institutions surveyed had experienced religiously motivated attacks in the last 3 years with four mosques being victim of arson attacks.
According to the IRR, it is no coincidence that citizenship deprivations, along with measures targeting Muslims and migrants, and an increase in Islamophobia, have grown at the same time that racial equality has been deprioritised by the UK government, especially under Boris Johnson leadership30. For example, the appointment of William Shawcross (who described Islam as a terrifying problem) to review the Prevent program in September 2021, led to human rights groups and Muslim organisations boycotting the review. Similarly, the UK’s Commission for Race and Ethnic Disparities report (published in March 2021 claimed that the UK is not “institutionally racist” (see Euro-Islam “The Backlash against the UK Race Report”).
According to the IRR, “citizenship is a right, not a privilege, a foundational status which must be enjoyed equally by all citizens”31. Whilst they acknowledge that those who fall afoul of the law should be subject to criminal investigation, citizenship should never be bought, sold, toyed with, or weaponised.