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Javid’s tough talk on citizenship is a threat to Britain’s diverse society

Originally a post for the blog at Global Future, where I worked.

Shamima Begum, the so-called ‘ISIS bride’ who has leapt back into the spotlight because she now wants to return to the UK, has never held a passport from any other country. Britain is a signatory to a UN Convention meant to stop governments making people stateless. So how can the Home Office deprive Begum of her British citizenship, as ITV News reported on Tuesday it has done?

Citizenship and statelessness law is extremely complex. Particularly at this stage, when we don’t know the government’s detailed legal reasoning, it’s not really worth non-experts trying to get to grips with all the legal nuances. But what we can say with confidence is that this would not have happened if Begum was from a white British family rather than an immigrant household – and that the law in this area, thanks to its discriminatory effects, undermines meaningful integration in the UK.

The basic position of the government seems to be that Begum is not being rendered stateless because she is a Bangladeshi citizen. Her family say she’s never been to Bangladesh or had a Bangladeshi passport. But her mother has, and it appears that nationality law in Bangladesh would make Begum a citizen by descent, at birth, as a result. (All this, of course, comes with the caveat that I am not a legal expert; particularly not in Bangladesh’s citizenship law. Bangladesh’s government says Begum is not a citizen, but a court will have the final word.)

Revoking the citizenship of dual nationals has been one response to foreign terrorism from governments in Australia, Canada and France, as well as the UK. But when this policy is extended to people who are dual citizens by heritage it seriously undermines the basis of a diverse society. Put sharply, a white British person born to white British parents is vanishingly unlikely to be a citizen of any other country. They could never be subject to this sanction, while those of immigrant heritage can.

It’s very difficult to know the exact scope of this discrimination. At the 2011 Census, over 613,000 people held a second passport as well as their British one. More than a third of those were born in the UK. All, in effect, have a conditional citizenship. They could lose it if the government decides prosecuting them for a crime is too difficult, or – as is the case here – the Home Secretary sees political advantage in starting a fight over crime or terrorism.

But of course, as Begum’s case shows, this doesn’t encompass all dual citizens – many more people will have a second citizenship but not a passport from that country. The children of immigrants are very likely to be in this situation. A non-expert glance at relevant citizenship law suggests that any child born to Nigerian, Jamaican, Bangladeshi or Pakistani parents is very likely to be a citizen of that country. Children of Indian parents born before 2004 are Indian citizens, and those born after will be if their parents registered their birth with the Indian High Commission. In many cases, even the grandchildren of immigrants might automatically become citizens at birth of countries they have almost non-existent links to.

The table below summarises what I’ve been able to find but it doesn’t incorporate all details and it’s not, needless to say, immigration advice of any kind.
CountryConditions to acquire citizenship by descentConditions to pass citizenship by descent to third generation
IndiaBorn before 2004: either parent an Indian citizen
Born after 2004: either parent Indian & registered with diplomatic mission
No additional conditions
PakistanEither parent a Pakistani citizenRegister with diplomatic mission
BangladeshMother a Bangladeshi citizenNo additional conditions
JamaicaEither parent a Jamaican citizenNo additional conditions
NigeriaEither parent a Nigerian citizenNo additional conditions

So even long-settled migrant communities simply do not enjoy the same security of citizenship that white British families do. British-born citizens from immigrant backgrounds are, in the eyes of the law, not as British as white citizens. That is the kind of sentiment that would attract outrage if said aloud by far-right politicians, here or abroad. But it has been quietly codified in the letter of British law, and is increasingly becoming the reality of government practice.

It’s hard to imagine citizenship revocation becoming widespread enough to be a major on-the-ground barrier to social cohesion. But the symbolism is repugnant, and high-profile cases like Begum’s can increase a sense of alienation from British society among migrant communities.

And it would be a mistake to think that, in practice, there’s no connection between citizenship revocation and integration policy more broadly. The UK government did not strip citizenship from anyone between 1973 and 2002. The revocation powers came back into vogue after 9/11. But the real explosion in their use was after 2010 – under a government which was openly and significantly more hostile to those it viewed as not belonging. (And the spike has become even more dramatic in the last couple of years.)

One further note is that the coalition government, as part of the 2014 Immigration Act, gave itself an even more far-reaching power: to strip citizenship even from people who don’t have any other nationality, if they could acquire one. The bar is somewhat higher – the person has to have conducted themselves “in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom” – but the potential reach of the law is vast. Anyone born in Northern Ireland, or with one grandparent born in Ireland, could obtain Irish citizenship; any Jewish person could obtain Israeli citizenship; many could get citizenship from European countries if their ancestors were affected by state discrimination in the leadup to World War II. The farcical story of seven Australian politicians forced to resign in 2017, because they hadn’t realised they were entitled to a second citizenship, shows how easy it is to fall into this trap.

All citizenship law is full of thorny details, and Britain’s is more complicated than most because of the legacy of colonialism. But beyond the details there is a core reality, illustrated by cases like Shamima Begum’s as much as by the Windrush scandal. The UK has designed a system of immigration and nationality law which treats people from immigrant backgrounds as less-than-fully-British.

That can manifest, as in the Windrush cases, in the destitution of people whose status as citizens is harder to prove because of their background. It can manifest in policies like Right to Rent, which actively create discrimination against black British citizens, and in the government’s complete refusal to modify these policies or listen to criticism of them. It can manifest in the deportation of people for minor crimes to countries they haven’t seen since their childhood. And it can manifest, ultimately, in stripping citizenship from people on the basis of a technicality about dual nationality that ignores the reality of their lives in the UK. This is a system that says immigrant families don’t belong and it should have no place in a diverse and tolerant society.

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