The character of citizenship: denying the rights of asylum seekers and criminalising dissent

Refusing citizenship on grounds of 'character' reflects the criminalisation of global political dissent and resistance, while these subjective criteria normalise an imperialist system of citizenship.

Kasia Narkowicz Nisha Kapoor
20 May 2017

Migrants at Calais, 2014. Yaghobzadeh Rafael/ABACA/PA Images. Some rights reserved.History tells us that citizenship is a privilege, not a right – so what does its implementation, in terms of policy. tell us about the meaning of citizenship at the current moment?

Aaden’s Story

Aaden was 16 when he arrived at Dover. Fleeing war, as a minor, he was housed with other young asylum seekers for three months before he eventually managed to make contact with his uncle who was living in London.

He notes that turning back to his religion became a way to escape the difficulties and harsh realities that life as an asylum seeker had brought. It took him away from drugs, drink and prison. He began praying and fasting and “being a good Muslim”.

On this path he began to visit different mosques around his neighbourhood, to hear different talks by different religious figures eager to expand his horizon and knowledge of Islam. Socially things improved and he joined a local football team linked to one of the mosques. They played against teams associated with other mosques.

Over time, he began to feel relatively more settled in the UK. He travelled back to the part of Africa where his family were staying to get married and became a father. He returned to the UK living apart from his wife and daughter who subsequently moved to central Asia. He was eager to see them. As a refugee his only identification for international travel was a travel card which does not allow entry into a number of states, including the country in which his daughter resides.

British citizenship and a British passport would provide him with a recognised nationality and grant him freedom of movement. With permanent leave to remain and long term residency he was eligible for naturalisation.

Nine months after he made an application, he received a letter from the Home Office refusing British citizenship. He was deemed, the letter stated, to be “not of good character”. It was “not conducive to the public good” to grant him citizenship. He found a solicitor and they wrote a long letter querying the decision. 

He was deemed, the letter stated, to be “not of good character”. It was “not conducive to the public good” to grant him citizenship. 

Shortly after he learned of the Home Office’s decision he received a phone call from ‘John’ who said that he worked for an organisation that helped people get naturalisation. Rejoicing and full of hope, Aaden arranged to meet him in a big hotel in central London.

On arrival he was taken to a room with a big table and all the snacks one could hope for before they told him that the organisation they worked for was MI5. Some of the guys he played football with “were evil,” they told him, and “a threat to the country”. They asked him how he knew them, whether he could work for the intelligence services. 

Aaden became afraid. Passports were not their department, John told him, but if he worked for MI5, they could arrange for a British passport and bring his wife and daughter to the UK. 

Aaden reports how he explained to the officers that he did not know the individuals they suspected, beyond interactions at football matches. John and his colleagues persisted, stating that they could train him on how to become an informant. They offered money, they offered housing. For Aaden, once again, depression set in.

Leaving the meeting, Aaden found a solicitor, who advised him to get in touch immediately if the intelligence services attempted to contact him again. Next time they called, he did just this, telling ‘John’ that he was seeking legal advice.

Aaden reports that MI5 hung up. Things became more difficult after this. His house was raided by the police on numerous occasions. On one occasion they arrested him, but three days later the charges were dropped. On a subsequent raid they took his travel card. He remains without a passport or recognised nationality of any kind. 

Bad character

Since the mid 2000s the number of people being refused naturalised citizenship on the grounds of ‘not good character’ has been gradually increasing. After a small dip in 2014, by 2015, 42% of people were refused British citizenship on these grounds.

It is becoming the principle reason for denying citizenship in Britain. Since this is a subjective measure, it is open to wide range of interpretations. There is no official legal definition of what constitutes ‘bad character’ – but in policy terms, it incorporates: ‘not abiding by or respecting the law’, being ‘associated with war crimes’, not having one’s ‘financial affairs in appropriate order’, being involved in ‘notorious activities’ that ‘cast serious doubt on standing in the local community’, being dishonest with the UK government, ‘assisting in the evasion of immigration control’ or having previously been deprived of citizenship. 

The practice of supplementing ‘objective’ thresholds for citizenship with such ‘subjective’ criteria significantly expands the scope for racial sorting, normalising an imperialist system of citizenship.

Terms are kept sufficiently vague that a decision-maker can still refuse citizenship if they have further doubts outside this list. While the framework for demarcating citizens and granting citizenship has always been deeply racialised, the practice of supplementing ‘objective’ thresholds for citizenship such as residency requirements with such ‘subjective’ criteria significantly expands the scope for racial sorting, normalising an imperialist system of citizenship.

The good character requirement for citizenship was revised in 2009 as part of the reforms brought in under Gordon Brown. His government’s ‘path to citizenship’ strengthened a notion in development for some time that citizenship was something to be ‘earned’. 

The 2009 enhancement centred around a staged process people seeking citizenship would have to demonstrate contribution to social and economic life in a number of ways, as well as proving a certain degree of assimilation. Sufficient knowledge of life in the UK and the English language would need to be demonstrated, along with showing that one was of reputable ‘character’ – to be shown through paying taxes and contributing to the community.

Though character requirements had long been part of legal provisions for citizenship, policy changes brought in at this time introduced a stricter test, marking a shift in the administration of citizenship that was already underway. As the Immigration Bill passed through Parliament, committee members agreed that it was “prudent to continue to apply the character test…via discretion [of the Home Office] rather than by establishing specific requirements in primary legislation”. 

This meant the Secretary of State could continue to hold ultimate authority over who should and should not be refused citizenship. It would not be a decision made by the executive, not judicial authority.

Expansive targeting

While the breadth of the ‘good character’ requirement allows for refusal of citizenship on a whole range of grounds, it is the discourse of terrorism and national security that is predominantly employed in political and media discussions to justify the imposition of more stringent measures. 

Within the category of terrorism, in practice what the denial of citizenship amounts to is expansive targeting of a whole range of individuals with quite different political positions and affiliations. Individuals denied under these criteria do not fit one type.

They might be people fleeing occupied countries who may have previously been involved in the military of quashed regimes such as Iraq, or Palestinian refugees who have in some way drawn attention to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. They might be people accused of some association with the PKK; or those with some past association with resistance groups, or anti-regime political factions such as Front Islamique du Salut of 1990s Algeria; or anyone with some tangential link to anyone identified as an ‘extremist’ – such as in Aaden’s case.

Refusing citizenship on grounds of character under the banner of engagement in ‘terrorist activities’ reflects the criminalisation of global political dissent and resistance.

In a number of these cases, evidence accumulated by the Home Office is obtained using informants operating within Muslim communities, and there is a catalogue of instances where those seeking legal assistance to review decisions against them report being asked to work for the intelligence services in exchange for British citizenship. Aaden’s story is not singular.

Refusing citizenship on grounds of character under the banner of engagement in ‘terrorist activities’ reflects the criminalisation of global political dissent and resistance.

In recent challenges to the secrecy around the decision-making process, in cases where citizenship is refused on grounds of terrorism or national-security related concerns, additional information relating to the review criteria has come to light.

In appeals against citizenship refusal heard in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, (a court which, set up under the rubric of dealing with national security deportation cases, allows for secret evidence to be presented by the state to which those appealing are not privy), lawyers have argued that applicants should be fully informed of the criteria against which they are being judged.

After some reluctance, the Home Office has disclosed some of the guidance issued to caseworkers stipulating that a person might meet good character requirements if they had not associated with individuals identified as ‘extremists’, they had ceased such association once they “became aware of the background of these individuals” and, critically, that they had “presented strong evidence of choosing such associates with the aim of trying to moderate their views and/or influence over others”. 

Conversely, applications should be refused if they associated with individuals deemed to have ‘extremist views’ and were aware of this or "provided little or no evidence to suggest that they were seeking to provide a moderating influence”. If a person such as Aaden, then, is considered to be associating with someone identified as ‘extreme,’ and refuses to work for the state, this in itself becomes sufficient reason for refusing citizenship.  

‘Deception and dishonesty’

In the name of counter-terrorism, the surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities in Britain is one way in which citizenship is denied; but the full scope of ‘good character’ requirements allow for stark racial sorting and exclusion in other ways too.

‘Deception and dishonesty’ in any liaison with a state department forms another broad set of criteria used to deny people citizenship, though they otherwise have leave to remain. ‘Deception’ refers to attempts to enter the country using false or misleading documents, or attempts to access public services which a person’s status may prohibit.

The harsh onslaught of legislative restrictions against asylum seekers has made it nearly impossible to arrive as an asylum seeker ‘legally’, without incurring some kind of legal infraction. Exclusion from basic services such as healthcare and housing means transgression becomes a necessity for most to survive.

The criteria of deception and dishonesty offers a way to exclude large numbers of individuals who have arrived seeking asylum from acquiring British citizenship. This is borne out in the data showing refusals of citizenship on the grounds of ‘not good character’.

Since 2002, many of those denied British citizenship have been from war-torn countries, often where Britain has a direct or indirect imperial relationship. The countries receiving the greatest proportion of refusals has varied slightly over time but has ranged between Nigeria, Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Kosovo, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Ghana.

Individuals most likely to have arrived in Britain claiming asylum are also most likely to be refused citizenship on the grounds of ‘bad character’.

There is a correlation between the countries from where most asylum applications have come, and the nationalities of individuals refused citizenship, which suggests that individuals most likely to have arrived in Britain claiming asylum are also most likely to be refused citizenship on the grounds of ‘bad character’. Though denial of naturalised citizenship does not mean the right of residency is retracted, it does enforce precarity, restricting freedom of movement and preserving the threat of deportation.

Currently behaviours or histories including divorce, promiscuity, drinking, gambling, eccentricity (including in terms of one’s beliefs), unemployment or other disdained working habits can, depending on scale and persistence, be considered grounds for refusing citizenship. One’s parenting, debt, or bankruptcy, are also factors for consideration.

That citizenship is a privilege, not a right, is something we know all too well. This process gives us some indication of how that privilege is being distributed.

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