In February of this year, Sajid Javid stripped 19-year-old Shamima Begum of her British citizenship, just days after she was located by The Times’ war correspondent, Anthony Loyd, in a refugee camp in Northern Syria. Begum was 15 when she left East London together with two friends to travel to ISIS territory. Already nine months pregnant when she was found by Loyd, she gave birth to a boy three days later. Within days of the decision being made to deprive her of her British citizenship, it was announced that her newborn son had died of pneumonia, the third of her children to meet this fate in two years. In a letter to the home secretary published in The Times, Begum’s family lawyer described Javid’s decision as “human fly-tipping” and a “politically-driven abuse of power” motivated by Javid’s personal ambitions to become Prime Minister.
Begum’s case prompted immediate national debate, but it also raises significant wider questions about the principles governing UK citizenship, the government’s ‘counter-extremism’ policy, and the social meaning of ‘Britishness’. This article is concerned primarily with those issues rather than the specific circumstances of Begum’s case. Often overlooked in the original debate was the larger point that the deprivation powers create a two-tiered system of citizenship where the protection of civil rights can be determined, in effect, by racial and ethnic identity. Such issues of race and civil liberties must figure centrally in any honest assessment of Theresa May’s legacy, as well as the prospect of a new Conservative leadership.
Since 2014, the Home Secretary has had two broad powers of citizenship deprivation. The first can be called the ‘Naturalisation Power’. This allows the Home Secretary to strip naturalised British citizens of their citizenship if he is satisfied that deprivation is “conducive to the public good” and there are “reasonable grounds” for believing that the person is able to acquire a different nationality, whether or not they would be made immediately stateless by the order.
The second power is the ‘Dual National Power’: this is a similarly broad power to deprive dual nationals, however their British nationality has been acquired, of their UK citizenship, provided that the Home Secretary considers that deprivation is conducive to the public good and will not render the individual in question stateless. It is on this basis that the decision to strip Begum of her citizenship appears to have been made: the UK government’s view is that Begum, as a descendent of Bangladeshi parents, automatically acquired Bangladeshi citizenship at birth, so that the decision to strip her of her UK nationality did not render her stateless as a matter of law. The Bangladeshi authorities, for their part, strenuously denied that she was a citizen, asserted that there was “no question” of her going to Bangladesh, and suggested further that she would likely face the death penalty if she tried. Whatever the correct legal position, it is clear that Begum has been made de facto stateless.
The effect of these powers, which have only come into use in recent years, is to create a system of tiered citizenship whereby certain classes of person are subject to an inherent insecurity of citizenship which will never be faced by others. Single nationality Britons by birth, unlike naturalised citizens and dual nationals, will never face the prospect of citizenship deprivation, no matter how deplorable their conduct.
These powers also have a clear discriminatory effect, in that security of citizenship will broadly correspond with racial and ethnic identity. This is because the deprivation powers apply to two categories of person: dual nationals and citizens by naturalisation who are entitled to alternative citizenship. Racial and ethnic minorities are overwhelmingly more likely to fit into either category. By way of example, laws conferring automatic citizenship by birth exist disproportionately in states in the Global South, and notably often in countries formerly colonised by the British. This means that individuals with ancestry from those countries (even if they themselves have few, if any, ties to those countries) are far more likely to suffer from the inherent insecurity of citizenship described above. The consequence of this discriminatory effect is that the tiers of citizenship are implicitly racialised, such that real, secure ‘Britishness’ is reserved primarily for white Britons, while the citizenship status of others will always be qualified in some way.
Some may object that the significance of these considerations is limited in practice, since the deprivation powers are likely to be exercised only in exceptional cases like Begum’s. But this misses the point, for two reasons. First, because the breadth of the discretion conferred upon the Home Secretary, which is not contingent upon any conviction for a terrorist offence and does not require the permission of a court, renders its operation deeply ideological. It should come as no surprise that there have now been reported cases of the powers being exercised in non-national security contexts, including in relation to the Rochdale ‘grooming gang’, where citizenship deprivation has been wielded as a tool of political theatre apparently intended to accommodate far-right tropes about Britishness and the perceived threats of multiculturalism.
Second, because the ideological nature of these powers must be considered in the wider context of the UK Government’s increasingly ‘securitised’ approach to a wide range of domestic issues including immigration and ‘counter-extremism’. This trend of securitisation has been perhaps the hallmark of Theresa May’s tenure as Home Secretary and then Prime Minister: to characterise certain perceived threats as Other, alien, or otherwise subversive in order to articulate ‘national security interests’ in such a way as to legitimise bringing the full force of the state to bear down on segments of civil society.
Thus the Hostile Environment imposes duties on schools, hospitals, local authorities, and landlords to monitor individuals’ (perceived) immigration statuses, with catastrophic results. Countless individuals have been wrongly deported to their deaths, disgracefully denied urgent medical treatment, and refused homes either by public authorities or private landlords. Survivors of torture and human trafficking have been unlawfully held in immigration detention for months and sometimes years on end, with a reported two suicide attempts every day in UK deportation centres as of October 2018.
The Prevent legislation has a similarly dire record. It imposes a legal duty on public authorities to monitor and report signs of ‘non-violent extremism’, defined in staggeringly broad terms as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values”, and indicators of which have been said to include opposition to UK foreign policy, ‘searching for answers to questions about identity’, and ‘perceptions of injustice’. This in turn has led to such occurrences as children being referred to police for wearing a Free Palestine badge at school and Sikh undergraduate students having their rooms searched in response to being overheard reading prayers privately in Punjabi.
The cumulative effect of these policies is to create a nation of ad hoc border agents and counter-extremism officers charged with policing often racialised ‘suspect populations’. The significance of the citizenship deprivation powers, in turn, is to entrench the status of certain categories of person as suspect citizens and possible fifth columns almost by default. In practical terms, it means that not all citizens are equal.
In a world increasingly characterised by walls, cages, and the creeping threat of fascism, this is no small matter. Our history demonstrates where it can lead.