Citizenship deprivation: A new politics of nationalism?

As instances of citizenship deprivation rise in Britain year on year, we face a situation in which rather than the governed choosing their government, governments choose who they wish to govern. Agnes Woolley reports from an event at Middlesex University. 

Agnes Woolley
17 March 2014

Rachel De-lahay’s play Routes, which was staged at London’s Royal Court theatre in September last year, tells the story of Bashir, a Somali-born British boy who turns 18 and discovers he’s been made stateless. Deemed no longer ‘conducive to the public good’, Bashir is held in one of several immigration detention centres across the country while the UK government decides whether it is safe to send him back to Somalia; a country from which he fled as a babe in arms and in which he has not set foot since.

Though it might seem to be the stuff of fiction, the phrase ‘conducive to the public good’ is taken straight from the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act passed by the Labour government in 2006. As Lord Slynn notes in Secretary of State for the Home Department v Rehman ‘there is no definition or limitation of what can be “conducive to the public good” and the matter is plainly in the first instance and primarily one for the discretion of the Secretary of State'. This malleable phrase thus provides broad and ill-defined grounds on which the UK government is able to deprive an individual of their British nationality and at the same time creates a dubious and shifting hierarchy of citizenship.  

The wide-ranging deprivation powers put in place by Labour now look set to become even more punitive. The Immigration Bill currently making its way through parliament allows the Home Secretary to deprive someone of their citizenship even if to do so would render them stateless. These developments were the focus of a recent one-day event at Middlesex University organised in association with the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University. Lawyers, researchers and journalists came together to discuss the ethical and practical impact of citizenship deprivation, a power which has been used with increasing regularity over the last few years. In fact, according to research carried out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in 2013 the coalition government deprived 20 people of their British citizenship.  

As Matthew J. Gibney, the deputy director of the Refugee Studies Centre, explained in his historical overview of citizenship deprivation and statelessness, the inclusion of the phrase ‘not conducive to the public good’ in Labour’s Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act was partly a response to the London bombings of 7th July, 2005. During the febrile early years of the ‘war on terror’, Tony Blair declared that ‘the rules of the game are changing’, paving the way for a fundamental shift in the ‘rules’ governing the concept of citizenship and a new willingness on the part of governments to override international human rights regimes. The exceptional legal measures taken by western governments in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the London bombings have resulted in what Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou describe as ‘a logic of dispossession’, which deprives individuals and communities of land, citizenship, property, and a broader belonging to the world. Measures such as the deprivation of citizenship clearly contribute to this phenomenon.

Alice Ross, of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drew out the troubling implications of the connections between changing citizenship criteria and national security concerns in her discussion of the work the Bureau is doing to expose the murky world of citizenship deprivation. A major challenge repeatedly faced by those served with a deprivation order on national security grounds is a lack of information: the government is under no obligation to reveal the charges against the individual being served.  

As Ross has highlighted on these pages, there is mounting evidence that the government strategically waits until people are out of the country before revoking their citizenship in order to prevent them from mounting lengthy in-country appeals. In one notorious case, a refugee from Sudan, who had acquired British citizenship in 2003, returned for a holiday in July 2010 and while he was out of the country was served with a deprivation order that left him stranded in Khartoum. As barrister Amanda Weston explained, out of country appeals against deprivation orders put claimants at a serious disadvantage. Not only might individuals making an appeal from outside the UK struggle to access a secure means of communication, but their own security may be under threat in a country they are likely to have fled precisely because of concerns for their own safety. Weston quoted Lord Justice Sedley, who noted that while out of country appeals ‘have been known to succeed’, this is only in ‘the rarest of cases’. Out of country appeals thus seem expedient for national governments wishing to rid themselves of ‘undesirable’ citizens such as Muslim cleric Abu Hamza – now incarcerated in the US after losing an appeal against an extradition order on terrorism charges –  and Hilal Al-Jedda, who is currently appealing a second deprivation order served against him by the Home Secretary in defiance of the Supreme Court.

The only check on the use of deprivation powers has been the stipulation that the government cannot deprive the individual of citizenship if to do so would make them stateless (i.e. only dual nationals could have their citizenship revoked). But as a result of last minute amendments to the Immigration Bill in January this year, this looks likely to change. The revamped 2013 Bill draws on language from previous legislation to give the Home Secretary the power to make an individual stateless if their conduct is thought to be ‘seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom’. Along with myriad changes designed to create what Theresa May has called a ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migration (which include the controversial requirement for landlords and banks to check applicants’ immigration status), this bill will allow the Home Secretary to render individuals stateless without prior warning and with no independent scrutiny. 

Alongside concerns over the steady erosion, and even suspension, of due legal processes in the wake of what Weston described as a ‘terror economy’, the issue of statelessness poses some fundamental questions about modes of belonging and the status of rights in the twenty-first century. Helena Wray’s introduction to the day’s discussions noted a major point of principle at stake in unchecked citizenship deprivation: rather than the governed choosing their government, governments choose who they wish to govern. This is a dangerous shift in the balance of power that jeopardises those liberal democratic ideals often cited as a bastion against terrorism. What’s more, the elasticity of phrases like ‘conducive to the public good’ suggests that British citizenship is conferred according to how well you behave; affirming the idea apparently subscribed to by the government that citizenship is a privilege, not a right.

However, as Hannah Arendt’s enduring insights attest, citizenship is actually a precondition for the exercise of rights. The ‘right to have rights’ remains dependent on national belonging despite international human rights regimes and affiliations such as European Union citizenship which, as barrister Adrian Berry explained, is only valid if you are also a citizen of an EU member state.

In this light, statelessness is not just physical exclusion from a territory, but a condition which testifies to the erosion of cosmopolitan ideals of global human rights and protection. As borders continue to tighten along sovereign national lines, there is neither a material nor a theoretical space from which the stateless are able to exercise any rights. As a result, stateless individuals and communities are uniquely exposed to violence, exclusion and poverty because they exist outside the law. Though instances of statelessness are still relatively small, it is a condition that provides a measure of the ethics and politics of the contemporary globalised era. It is the basis on which a new politics of nationalism emerges as decisions over who does and who does not belong within the national polity give renewed force to anxiety about alien ‘others’ and citizenship becomes a privilege conferred only to those able to demonstrate their adherence to arbitrarily-defined and unaccountable criteria of ‘public good’.  


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