When the bill proposing to revoke the citizenship of naturalised citizens was read, Lord Houghton objected on the grounds that the bill “confide[s] to the Secretary of State a very transcendental power — more than ought to be entrusted to any man”. Lord Houghton presented his sensible argument during the debate on the Naturalisation Bill in the House of Lords on March 10, 1870.
A century and a half later, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid has used his ‘transcendental power’ to revoke Shamima Begum’s British citizenship. Shamima was born in Britain. At 15, she decided to go to Syria to support the militant Islamic State group, with two other friends. Four years later, Shamima, who just lost her newborn child, waits in the Syrian refugee camp. She intends to return to Britain. Major news and print outlets have debated whether she deserves another chance — but civil rights need not be the prerogative of a single individual, whether Shamima Begum or Sajid Javid. Rather, it is the concern of society at large.
We should not just ask what moral grounds allow this individual her citizenship, but on what legal grounds does the state deny citizens their citizenship status? Specifically, we should look at how the state has come to acquire this ‘transcendental power’ that frightened members of the House of Lords in the 19th century.
Oxford University’s Professor Matthew Gibney, an expert on forced migration, shows that the British state has tinkered with immigration laws several times before, starting with the Germans. The First World War saw a rise in anti-German sentiment in Britain. The government concocted laws as a threat to evacuate German residents. Geopolitical changes after the Second World War brought changes in immigration and citizenship laws in 1948, in 1964 and in 1984. Yet, these laws played a minute role in politics and policies. But, events in 2001 changed the purpose, power and politics of these laws.
Two events, the Oldham riots in 2001, and 9/11, increased the intensity and scope of the denaturalisation law. In 2002, the Labour government presented the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Gibney notes: “The bill proposed three major changes to the deprivation law”. First, the standard for denaturalisation changed from “disloyalty, trading with the enemy, etc. to a single standard: that the Secretary State ‘thinks that’ an individual’s holding citizenship is ‘seriously prejudicial to the vital interests’ of the United Kingdom.”
Second, the law now applied to all “types of British citizen: those who had gained it through birth, registration, or naturalisation”. Third, “the government now would not deprive if it would make an individual stateless”. The third point was in the context of Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that affirms everyone has a right to belong to a nationality.
Amendments in 2004, 2005, and 2006 further enhanced the scope and power of the law. Now, in order to deny citizenship, the home secretary had to just argue that one’s citizenship was ‘not conducive to the public good’. Also, a notification letter from the Home Office would automatically revoke one’s nationality.
Though Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, enacted these laws, the Conservative government employed them as a political tool. Gibney shows that in just one year, 2010-2011, David Cameron and Theresa May, then home secretary, denaturalised six people. This was more than Blair and Brown ever did in nine years. Just in 2011-2014, 23 people were denaturalised on the grounds of being ‘not conducive to the public good’. In fact, the whole immigration policy under the Conservatives acted to alienate immigrants.
In 2014, the government proposed amendments in the law that ignored Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After much parliamentary discussion, objection and deliberation, the power of the Home Office was extended but in a complicated way. Until now, British nationals, by birth and naturalisation, with dual citizenship could be denaturalised. After this amendment, those with single nationality could also be denaturalised on the grounds of ‘not being conducive to public good’ but only if they had received their citizenship through naturalisation, not by birth.
If a person has dual nationality, the Home Office can revoke their citizenship. If a person has single nationality through naturalisation, the Home Office can revoke their citizenship. If a person has single nationality, through birth, the Home Office can revoke their citizenship by showing the person can get nationality elsewhere. Christopher Bertram, professor of social and political philosophy, argues that in theory government can denaturalise anyone but in practice this law specifically targets citizens from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. Thus, under this law, all nationals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
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