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The Nationality and Borders Bill is a Legacy of Empire

We need to start calling British immigration policy and law for what it is: a form of post-colonial, racialised nation-building, says Dr Maria Norris

Home Secretary Priti Patel. Photo: PA Images

The Nationality and Borders Bill is a Legacy of Empire

We need to start calling British immigration policy and law for what it is: a form of post-colonial, racialised nation-building, says Dr Maria Norris

When the House of Commons voted through the Nationality and Borders Bill, MPs made it clear that British politics is deeply embedded in the ideology of white nationalism.

The bill contains many new pieces of legislation that have proven controversial, including criminalising people who enter the UK “illegally”, and – perhaps most controversially of all – giving the Government powers to revoke people’s British citizenship. 

It is shocking, but perhaps not surprising. In the UK today, immigration policy is a continuation of British colonial power. 

The world system of nation-states is reinforced and reconstructed every day by the existence of passports, national sports teams, and the ever-present national flag. Nationalism sets up the requirement that the political apparatus of the state needs to reflect the people. Democracies are thus exclusionary entities: communities bound by territory and membership. In countries with a history of empire, this membership is also deeply racial.

As Nadine El-Enany argues in her book, Bordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire, that colonial power is an explicit white supremacist power, with the categorisation of people into those with and without rights of entry reproducing colonial practices of racial ordering. When the bounded community is underwritten by white nationalism, we have immigration policies which dehumanise, degrade, and enact violence on the bodies of racialised Others.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is the perfect encapsulation of this. 

It is primarily an anti-refugee bill which will lead to misery and death. Of course, that misery and death already exists. Last month, 31 people died after attempting to cross the Channel in a boat, including a pregnant woman and three children. This tragedy was a direct result of an immigration system that dehumanises and seeks to criminalise human beings simply because of where they have come from. 

From the employment of Dan O’Mahoney as Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, to threats to use jet skis and wave machines to turn back people crossing the Channel, the Home Secretary has committed to making this route into the UK “unviable”. But, making the route unviable, does not deter people desperate to escape persecution, conflict and violence – it simply makes the route less safe. Do that and people die. 

This is what the British immigration system does. It distributes chances at life and death, and it does so in a racialised manner, so that those racialised as white are almost never at risk of death at the border.

The writer Achille Mbembe calls this “necropolitics” – the calculus behind who gets to live and who is expendable. It is the framework which illuminates how the Government assigns value to human life – including in a racialised manner. 

Nowhere is this racialised value more evident than in clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which exempts the Government from having to give notice after depriving someone of British citizenship.

Who is a Citizen?

The powers to deprive someone of their nationality were narrowed in the Immigration Act 2014. Since then, the powers to remove British citizenship can be used against those that have a recent history of immigration, or those who have the ability to obtain foreign citizenship by other means such as marriage. This is because these are the citizens who can (at least theoretically) claim citizenship somewhere else. 

As such, British citizens who have no history of immigration, and can therefore only claim British citizenship, are effectively protected from this power. This is a system of hierarchical and racialised citizenship, with recent reports showing that two in every five people from non-white ethnic minority groups would be eligible for deprivation of citizenship, compared with just one in 20 white people. 

It is by design that, for British citizens of minority ethnic groups, their citizenship is never as secure – it is always conditional. In her book, Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats, Maya Goodfellow charts how the ‘hostile environment’ is not a recent construction but is as old as the British nation-state, built on Empire. 

Britain’s transition from Empire to a nation-state questioned the Britishness of former non-white imperial subjects. Through successive immigration and nationality legislation in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the rights of Commonwealth citizens to enter and remain in Britain were ended.

The concept of partiality introduced in the 1971 Immigration Act, and later embedded in citizenship rights in the British Nationality Act 1981, made whiteness intrinsic to British identity, requiring that only those born in Britain or with a parent born in Britain had the right to citizenship. This allowed for the continued accommodation of white Commonwealth citizens into the British nation-state while disproportionately and systematically excluding black and Asian Commonwealth citizens, with their belonging and their Britishness always in question. 

The result of these policies is that racialised citizens, those of us whose ‘otherness’ is visible, carry the border with us. From the cutting but frequent ‘where are you really from?’ questions, to the requirement to prove your citizenship to access the NHS or rent a house, the border never leaves us. Section 51 of the Nationality and Borders Bill imposes a four-year prison sentence on anybody who is unable to renew their immigration status. These are people who have committed no crime, who have harmed no one, who will be punished for existing irregularly.

The stress and anxiety of living in a hostile environment is the constant companion of the racialised citizen living in a white supremacist state. One cannot live in a hostile environment and remain healthy: the toxicity filters through and manifests itself through increased nastiness, division, xenophobia and racism. 

But it can be challenged if we stop obfuscating and using euphemisms. It is time we call the Nationality and Borders Bill and the British immigration system what it is: a white supremacist, post-colonial form of social control causing untold harm and human suffering. 

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