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UK Nationality and Borders Bill: 'Banishment' powers slammed by Lords

Legislation to strip away citizenship would bolster powers used extensively against British nationals in Syria
Shami Chakrabarti said citizenship-stripping powers had stoked “fear and loathing“ in the UK’s minority communities (

Proposed legislation which would grant the UK government powers to secretly deprive dual nationals of their British citizenship would allow people to be "dumped like waste", the House of Lords heard on Wednesday.

Speaking in a debate in the parliamentary upper house on the Nationality and Borders Bill, Shami Chakrabarti, a Labour peer and former director of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, said that concerns about citizenship-stripping powers had inspired "fear and loathing" in minority communities.

"To deprive a national of that status without notice should be beyond the contemplation of any civilised society that cares about rights and freedoms in general and due process in particular," said Chakrabarti.

If passed into law in its current form, the bill would bolster controversial Home Office citizenship-stripping powers which have been used most extensively against British nationals who travelled to Syria during the country’s civil war.

Under the current system, British nationals whose citizenship is revoked must be notified and have a right to challenge the decision through an appeals process.

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The proposed legislation, contained in clause nine of the bill, would instead give the government the right to deprive somebody of citizenship without notifying them if it is not practically possible to do so, because of national security or diplomatic considerations, or “for any other reason”.

The UK and citizenship-stripping powers

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The UK has been described by researchers as a “global leader in using citizenship deprivation as a counterterrorism measure”.

Historic citizenship-stripping powers targeted at naturalised citizens on disloyalty grounds had largely fallen into disuse prior to 2002, when the government introduced new measures in an attempt to revoke the citizenship of Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born cleric subsequently convicted of terrorism in the US.

The 2002 legislation allowed for British-born nationals as well as naturalised citizens to lose their nationality rights. Successive governments gradually broadened the scope of the powers so that home secretaries can now deprive anyone of citizenship if they are satisfied that doing so is “conducive to the public good” and would not leave an individual stateless.

No criminal conviction is required. Letters often state that individuals have been assessed as presenting “a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom”.

The government’s use of the powers surged to unprecedented levels in response to the perceived threat posed by British nationals returning from Syria.

Between 2010 and 2015, 33 people were stripped of their citizenship, according to Home Office figures. In 2016, 14 people were deprived, and in 2017 the number jumped to 104.

In 2018, the figure was 21, and in in 2019 - when Shamima Begum was among those targeted - it was 27. It then dropped to ten in 2020 and eight in 2021.

Some subjects of citizenship-stripping orders argue that they have been left effectively stateless, because the government bases its assessment that they are dual nationals on a right of citizenship to a parent’s country of birth, even if they have never taken up that citizenship or even visited the country.

In some cases the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which rules on citizenship cases, has agreed: it has ruled in favour of British nationals of Bangladeshi descent on the grounds that Bangladesh does not consider them citizens if they have not claimed Bangladeshi nationality before the age of 21.  

Human rights organisations and lawyers have compared the powers to “medieval exile and banishment”. Critics also point out that the powers create a two-tier system in which only those deemed to be dual nationals are at risk of losing their British citizenship; a measure that discriminates against naturalised citizens, immigrants and their children.

"A nation's citizens are its responsibility and not to be dumped like waste, even or especially on the subjective grounds of security, diplomatic relations or 'otherwise in the public interest'," said Chakrabarti.

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Citizenship-stripping powers were also condemned by Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative peer and former chair of the party, who noted that much of the current legislation concerning their use was introduced under former prime minister Tony Blair's Labour government.

"This power grab by the home secretary is deeply dangerous, one that seeks to deprive someone of their right to citizenship without even giving the person being deprived the right to know, depriving them even of the right to check whether the secretary of state had the legal basis or accurate facts to exercise that power," said Warsi.

Both Warsi and Chakrabarti noted that they were children of immigrants to the UK. Warsi said her parents' contemporaries had always "feared that their future generations would be outsiders, second-class citizens who would be told to 'go back home' or to leave".

She said the Windrush scandal, in which migrants and their children who came to the UK from the Caribbean since the late 1940s were wrongly deported, and the exponential use of citizenship-stripping powers had compounded those fears.

David Anderson, a former reviewer of UK counter-terrorism legislation who now sits as a crossbench peer, compared recent extensions to citizenship-stripping powers as "a version of the ancient practice of banishment".

"There is already apprehension among people of mixed heritage about this country's unusually far-reaching powers to remove citizenship," he said.

"The proposal to allow the use of those largely unmonitored powers to be kept secret even from a subject who could perfectly easily be told has predictably compounded those fears."

Critics argue that the existing powers already discriminate against ethnic minorities and migrant communities, creating a second tier of citizenship.

Assault on rights

In a joint statement issued ahead of Wednesday's Lords debate, campaigners representing charities, civil society organisations and minorities called for public opposition to the measures and for peers to reject the bill.

"The Nationality and Borders Bill is the latest assault against migrant rights and the democratic rights of British citizens that sharply escalated since the so-called War on Terror. This bill is a route to disenfranchisement and even deportation of people of colour on an unprecedented scale," the letter said.

Signatories included Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust equality think tank; Raghad Altikriti, president of the Muslim Association of Britain; Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign; and Muhammad Rabbani, managing director of Cage, a rights group focused on the impact of counterterrorism policies on Muslim communities.

In a separate statement, the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group representing hundreds of Muslim organisations and mosques, also condemned the bill.

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"The Nationality and Borders Bill is an affront to human rights. This bill appears to be yet another attempt to further marginalise minority groups, while eroding our civil liberties," said Zara Mohammed, the MCB's secretary general.

In a briefing published on Wednesday, Amnesty International and Migrant Voice said that potentially permitting citizenship-stripping powers to be used secretly had "provoked fear and anger among many people and communities; and we share their outrage.

"The power to strip some people of their British citizenship is already a draconian measure with a disproportionate impact that is an affront to justice and to any sense of citizenship as a unifying status of all who possess it," the briefing said. 

The bill, which is proposed by Home Secretary Priti Patel, has already been passed by the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK parliament, where the right-wing Conservative government has a large majority.

Members of the House of Lords can propose amendments to the legislation, which are then returned to the Commons for further scrutiny.

Responding to criticism of clause nine during the House of Lords debate, Susan Williams, a conservative peer and Home Office minister, said that citizenship-stripping powers were necessary for national security and described the proposed changes as "simply intended to ensure that existing powers can be used effectively in all appropriate circumstances".

She added: "Instead, the scaremongering that we have seen around this clause from some quarters is unacceptable, irresponsible and highly regrettable."

Middle East Eye exclusively reported in 2017 that British aid workers based in opposition-held areas of Syria were being stripped of their citizenship amid concerns that returnees from the country posed a security threat to the UK.

The powers were used most extensively against British nationals suspected of links to the Islamic State group, as territory held by the militants in Syria and Iraq imploded.

Out of 172 people deprived of citizenship between 2010 and 2018, 104 of those cases occurred in 2017, according to Home Office figures.

Notable cases of British nationals stripped of their citizenship include Shamima Begum, who travelled aged 15 to IS-held territory in Syria in 2015, and is currently being held in a camp for IS-linked detainees in northeast Syria.

The Home Office has described citizenship as "a privilege, not a right". It says the use of citizenship-stripping powers is reserved for “those who pose a threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm”.

A number of people have successfully challenged the government's use of the powers. In May 2021, a man returned to the UK after years stranded abroad, after the government conceded it had wrongly assessed that he was entitled to Bangladeshi citizenship.

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