Today
Tue 25 January 2022

Building opposition to the Government’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill must go beyond a focus on its clause on citizenship deprivation, says Liam Shrivastava

The Government’s intention to extend ministers’ powers in relation to removing British citizenship has prompted a wave of anger, disbelief and deep anxiety.

Added in October, clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill will mean that, in many instances, the Government will not be required to give notice of a decision to deprive an individual of their citizenship. 

The clause has raised genuine fears among black and ethnic minority communities that their British citizenship is precarious, contingent and dependent on good behaviour. These concerns were heightened after a New Statesman analysis found that up to six million British citizens could be eligible to a deprivation order – including two in every five people from non-white minorities, compared with just one in 20 people categorised as white.

Activists and community groups have responded by raising the alarm, with more than a quarter of a million people signing a parliamentary petition to remove clause 9 from the Bill. 

As Frances Webber, vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations, has pointed out, not giving people notice on decisions that affect them violates basic norms of fairness. It is a deeply worrying turn and it is unclear how someone who has had their citizenship removed could realistically appeal against such a decision under clause 9.

The removal of notification in the Bill has the potential to significantly expand the Government’s ability to deprive a person of their citizenship, but it has already had these powers for several years.

Citizenship deprivation is contained in section 40 of the 1981 British Nationality Act and, since 2002, ministers have been able to strip citizenship of those born in the UK and naturalised citizens, as long as they have another citizenship.

In 2006, the threshold for removing citizenship was lowered to the rather vague reason of being “conducive to the public good”. More recently, since 2014, a British citizen with no other citizenship can effectively be made stateless if there are reasonable grounds to believe that they will be able to acquire another citizenship. In 2019, Shamima Begum, whose parents are from Bangladesh, was deprived of her citizenship despite being born and brought up in Britain.

One’s nationality is what grants access to the protections set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hannah Arendt, a refugee who fled Nazi Germany, famously wrote that citizenship was what guaranteed a person’s human rights – “the right to have rights”.

The philosopher Étienne Balibar observes that citizenship is historically wracked with contradictions – namely that its very constitution is predicated on conditionality and exclusion, often with racialised dynamics. This can lead to a sedimented hierarchy of non-citizens, half-citizens and full citizens dependent on when, how and from where a person settled in a country.

When citizenship is looked at in this way, we can better understand how British ‘subjects’ from the Commonwealth were disgracefully treated in the Windrush Scandal or how the deportation regime means that ‘undesirable’ black and brown individuals who have transgressed are deemed unworthy of the rights afforded to ‘law-abiding citizens’.

For some, citizenship has always been contingent, so its very structure has a disciplining effect on those who seek it or could have it taken away. This is hardwired into the logics of the Home Office’s immigration system with “good character” a key condition for obtaining British nationality status. It also underpins an asylum system organised around suspicion over ‘bogus’ claims and “not genuine” asylum seekers.

With the Home Office now openly declaring that “citizenship is a privilege, not a right”, we should reflect on the fact that this latest assault is not exceptional – it is the intended expansion of a violent system that dehumanises the most vulnerable, excludes ‘undeserving’ others and entrenches hierarchies of belonging. 

As some have highlighted, a skewed focus on clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill risks losing sight of the many other harmful aspects of it that target vulnerable people who don’t hold British citizenship. The Home Secretary has vowed to make Channel crossings “unviable” in the form of physical push-backs of small boats, while removing or reducing the right to asylum for those arriving by “irregular means”

The other danger is that by centring the (hypothetical) plight of British citizens – including white Europeans unlikely to ever lose their citizenship – there is a risk of reproducing the logics inherent in the ‘hostile environment’ that ties immigration status to whether one can access rights, welfare, housing and healthcare. As with Windrush, this can mean that outrage at the system only emerges when it affects the ‘good migrants’ and not the ‘bad’. It also leaves progressives open to accusations of creating a moral panic and dismissals from Government ministers and the reactionary right that citizenship stripping is only reserved for ‘dangerous extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ in ‘exceptional circumstances’. 

But history tells us that legislation passed today can have broader ramifications and applications tomorrow.

And there is a reason why this clause has struck a chord with so many communities of colour: on a psychological level, it evokes the more visceral forms of popular racism – ‘go back to your own country’ – and a reminder that black and Muslim people in particular can be punished once for doing wrong and again due to their race.

Campaigners need to recognise that, while on the surface, clause 9 is an intensification of an already draconian practice of citizenship-stripping, this is a moment to build on the public outcry and make connections within a broader deportation logic of expulsion and exclusion.

A. Sivanandan, the founding director of the Institute of Race Relations, said that campaigns can turn “cases into issues, issues into causes, and causes into a movement”. The campaign to remove clause 9 is an important one, but it should be seen as a cause that grows into a popular movement to dismantle the racist hostile environment.

Liam Shrivastava is communications officer at the Institute of Race Relations

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