There’s no place like home: Nationality, borders and statelessness

Family photos from the late 1960s showing Indian immigrants not long after arriving in the UK.
Photo credit: Mo Kanjilal, family photos from late 1960s showing Indian immigrants not long after arriving in the UK

I grew up knowing that we always made sure someone in the family still had an Indian passport. For me, it was my Mum. And that meant going to an embassy in London if we wanted to go on holiday anywhere in Europe so she could get a visa. Money was kept in different places at all times. Different bank accounts, different bags, and some was kept in India. Why? Well because, you never know, one day they might kick us out. We had to be ready. And there was the same concern about coming back into this country too. I remember a family holiday to India in 1979, our neighbour told my Dad to get his British passport before he left the country. In case they wouldn’t let him back in again.

All of these stories have felt in the past as I have grown older. I was born here; I have lived my whole life here. I have only been to India on holidays. So, the idea that India is my home, where I should go back to, seems ludicrous.

This week, while everyone was distracted with stories about the Conservative party having Christmas parties a year ago, MPs passed the Nationality and Borders bill. In this bill, clause 9 states that:

“Notice of decision to deprive a person of citizenship,” exempts the Government from having to give notice if it is not “reasonably practicable” to do so, or in the interests of national security, diplomatic relations or is otherwise in the public interest.”

Nationality and Borders Bill, clause 9

The British government can decide to take your British citizenship away

What this means is that the government can decide that they think you can claim citizenship in another country. They can decide to take your British citizenship away. If they decide it is in the public interest, they will take away British citizenship and leave people to try and claim citizenship in a country they might never have lived in. The country they think you can claim citizenship has no obligation to offer you citizenship. So, this could render people stateless. Estimates are that this will affect 6 million people. This is two in every five people from a non-white ethnic minority background.

The precedent for this was set with Shamima Begum, an East London woman, born in the UK to parents of Bangladeshi heritage. She travelled to Syria in 2015 to support IS (Islamic State). Sajid Javid, himself the child of immigrants stripped her of her citizenship, even though the UK has responsibilities under international law to avoid people being left stateless. In February 2020, a tribunal ruled that removing Ms Begum’s citizenship was lawful because she was “a citizen of Bangladesh by descent“. But Bangladesh has said that is not the case and she would not be allowed into the country.

This bill has progressed since Shamima Begum’s case. Home Secretary Priti Patel, also the child of immigrants, has been the MP pushing this bill through parliament. When Shamima Begum was stripped of her citizenship, there was plenty of outcry that this would set a precedent. The passing of this bill will move that precedent set into law.

Frances Webber, the vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations, said: “This amendment sends the message that certain citizens, despite being born and brought up in the UK and having no other home, remain migrants in this country. Their citizenship, and therefore all their rights, are precarious and contingent.”

The hostile environment

Street scene of Southall Broadway showing Indian shops and people going about their business.
Southall Broadway, London showing Indian shops. Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dgeezer/2664895333

The Nationality and Borders Bill is part of the ‘hostile environment’ strategy pursued by the Conservative party. Other changes passed in the bill include rendering claims by anyone who arrives in the UK by an ‘illegal’ route inadmissible. And gives Border Force staff immunity from prosecution if people die in the Channel during ‘pushback’ operations.

The Home Office has made many claims about this bill which have been fact-checked by Amnesty International. They have written a guide to help people understand the bill and the facts surrounding it.

What this bill does, is to deepen the rhetoric pursued by the Conservative party in making it difficult to migrate to the UK. The hostile environment is a set of policies which started to be introduced in 2012, by the then Home Secretary Theresa May. It was pushed into public view through the ‘Go Home’ vans, and through the Windrush generation scandal where many were deported to countries they have never lived in.

Despite many protests by different groups, including doctors from immigrant backgrounds, the Windrush generation and their descendants, and the many EU citizens in this country, the policies continue to be pushed through. This line of policy-making is part of the continued focus on the hostile environment and the scapegoating of immigrants.

This is what many were protesting about during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. This is why we went on those marches. This is why we continue to oppose and protest as much as we can. The racial undertones of the Brexit debate are linked to this campaign to create policies to make life tough for anyone from immigrant backgrounds. And to make it difficult to emigrate to the UK. And now this bill takes the discourse a stage further by enabling the government to remove people’s citizenship if they deem it necessary.

Citizen apathy?

The bill passed in the House of Commons on the day the media were distracted with the Christmas parties story. There is also a general lack of knowledge in society about this bill. The media have not reported it widely. There is a lack of engagement from those who don’t think it applies to them and I have been surprised by how many people I know don’t know anything about it.

Harriet Parry, who teaches at the University of Brighton said that she has been talking to students about it.

And people are more engaged in things that affect them directly. I have had many friends over the years who shut down discussions by saying they are not interested in politics. That’s easy to say when it doesn’t affect you. By stating that, people show their privilege in not having to worry about these things.

“British Citizenship is a privilege, not a right”

In response to the discussion around the bill, the Home Office has said:

 “British citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Deprivation of citizenship on conducive grounds is rightly reserved for those who pose a threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm. The nationality and borders bill will amend the law so citizenship can be deprived where it is not practicable to give notice, for example if there is no way of communicating with the person.”

So, is there anything people can do? The bill will now pass to the House of Lords where hopefully there will be amendments. What you can do is to write to your MP and ask them to campaign to remove clause 9 from the bill https://www.writetothem.com/

And you can sign the petition to ask the government to remove clause 9. Follow @WritersofColour who are campaigning to get the bill abolished.  And you can also talk to people about it. Because the longer the media distracts us from bills like this, the easier it is for Parliament to pass bills like this under our noses.

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