Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to “Who do we think we are?”, a podcast exploring some of the forgotten stories of British citizenship. I am your host, Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship, migration and belonging, and professor in public sociology at Lancaster University. Join me over the course of the series as I debunk the taken-for-granted understandings of citizenship and explore how thinking differently about citizenship helps us to make sense of some of the most pressing issues of our times.
Zainab Naqvi [ZN]: I come from a Muslim background and I was very interested in the cases around the so called “jihadi brides”. And I think that for me, it’s definitely made me realise how vulnerable I am. I’m the daughter of naturalised citizens, which means that I could end up in a situation like Shamima. And now I will never look at my passport the same way again.
MB: That was Dr Zainab Naqvi, Senior Lecturer in Law at De Montfort University. Her research specialises in questions of judicial and legal responses to ethnic minorities in the UK. I was fortunate enough to meet up with her in person in December 2021. And that’s a thirst for us on the podcast. Because of course, we’ve been recording over the course of the COVID 19 pandemic, and most of our recordings have been done remotely. We’ll be hearing more from her later about what her research on citizenship deprivation and judicial responses to this can tell us about British citizenship in the present day. My conversation with Zainab was particularly timely, it spoke to an issue that has been in the headlines repeatedly over the past few months, if not the past few years. Indeed, citizenship deprivation—and the changes that are likely to be introduced to this—is one of the issues being discussed through the debates on the Nationality and Borders Bill as it passes through Parliament. Now this bill, to me, is reminiscent of earlier Acts of Parliament that we’ve discussed on the podcast. And so we’re going to be devoting a few episodes to some of the issues that it raises. You’ll remember we talked about the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act with Kamran Khan in the last episode. We talked about how provisions introduced through this bill responded to the increasing securitisation of Britain and its borders, how English language testing was caught up in this, and the wider implications for Britain’s Muslim communities. And when we look at the Nationality and Borders Bill, we can see that it’s similar in scope and reach. The changes to citizenship deprivation, alongside changes to the UK’s asylum legislation that it proposes have been among the most controversial and headline issues within this bill. But, there are a host of other provisions included in this very broad bill. And we’ll be considering some of those in future episodes and in particular, how these try to amend historic injustices around nationality legislation, and who it excludes. But today, we’re going to be looking in depth at citizenship deprivation. Back in the archive, George has been looking into one of the most politicised cases of citizenship deprivation in the UK in recent years. The case of Shamima Begum, a British citizen, who at the age of 15, left Britain and joined IS, a group defined by the British government as a terrorist organisation. Seeking to return in 2019, she was stripped of her citizenship by order of the UK’s Home Secretary. I’ll be reflecting a little more on the Nationality and Borders Bill and particularly Clause 9. This is the clause within which proposed changes to citizenship deprivation are located. I’ll be looking at how and why these changes have sparked concern and also how they sit in that longer history of citizenship deprivation. And we’ll be hearing more from Zainab about how citizenship deprivation has disproportionately discriminated against Britain’s racially minoritized communities, and the roots of such discrimination in the tactics used by colonial administrators and governments. Before we head into the archive with George, here’s a little recap of the Shamima Begum case. I’m sure that her name is familiar to you. After leaving the UK in 2015 at the age of 19, four years later, she was found by journalists in a refugee camp in Syria with a baby. During an interview with them, she expressed a desire to return to the UK with her child. A desire to return then became a high profile and divisive political issue. The UK’s Home Secretary Sajid Javid made clear that her prior actions were judged as severe enough to have her British citizenship removed, despite having been born British. The grounds: she was considered a threat to national security. This meant that she could not return to the UK. I remember hearing this news and thinking: how is that legal? I mean, here is a young British woman with no other citizenship, having her citizenship removed. In our episode with Devyani Prabhat. We heard how making people stateless has been legislated against in international law. So surely this was against that law. The UK government have argued that this is not the case. They’ve stressed that she is eligible for citizenship of Bangladesh through her mother. But here’s the twist. Bangladesh said they wouldn’t let her into the country or grant her citizenship, even if she applied. So where exactly does that leave her? Let’s hear more from George with the latest on how the case of Shamima Begum relates to Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill.
George Kalivis [GK]: Commenting on the issues around Clause 9 in the new Nationality and Borders Bill, the Financial Times referred to the case of Shamima Begum, in an editorial opinion published on the 16th of January 2022, under the title “The UK’s Erosion of Citizenship Rights”. We read that “the right to appeal [to citizenship deprivation] is not absolute, as evidenced by the case of British born Shamima Begum […]. The Supreme Court ruled that public safety outweighed her right to return to challenge her deprivation order. The Home Office argues that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Not only is that insulting to Britons who fear that their citizenship could be revoked at the home secretary’s discretion, it is also legally questionable. Citizenship is a right, not a privilege, protected by international treaties and law to which the UK is a signatory.” The proposed legislation can potentially affect 5.6 million people, of which just one in 20 are white, while half of British Asians and 39% of black Britons are potentially at risk. In another relevant article from the 15th of December 2021, in the Guardian—titled “Like Shamima Begum, I could soon be stripped of British citizenship without notice”—solicitor Naga Kandiah summarises what all this actually means for people’s everyday life. He says: “Of course, this extrapolation of census data does not mean that all of us will be unceremoniously booted out of the UK on the whim of the Home Secretary. But what it does do is instil fear and uncertainty into our hearts. For millions of us the UK is the only place we consider home but clause 9 is whispering in our ears: ‘Don’t be too sure about that.’ Psychologically, the rug of our secure lives here is being pulled from under our feet. Those of us among the 5.6 million who are people of colour will sleep less easily in our beds, if this clause becomes law.” Having read all that, in my view, Shamima Begum’s case does highlight current problems around immigration and nationality policymaking in the UK; issues related to Islamophobia, sexism, racism, a false feeling of white British exceptionalism, and an arguably problematic approach to people’s right to citizenship.
MB: The cases that we’ve just heard from George about show that Clause 9 and the changes to citizenship deprivation that this proposes have sparked considerable concern among Britain’s racially minoritized communities. We’ll be hearing more on the backstory to this from Zainab shortly. But what does Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill proposed in relation to citizenship deprivation? Very simply, it proposes to remove the requirement to notify individuals of the order to deprive them of their citizenship. In their recent response to the 315,000 signatories who petitioned them to remove this clause, the government insisted that they would not be removing it. They claim that Clause 9 strikes the right balance between the rights of the individual and the aims of the policy to keep the public safe. So let’s unpack this a little bit and think about the history of citizenship deprivation. Powers to deprive people of their status in British legislation have a history that dates back to the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act of 1914. At this time, powers were introduced that allowed the Secretary of State to revoke status gained through naturalisation on the grounds of fraud or disloyalty to the monarchy. The key point to take away here is that this applied only to those who had become British subjects, not those who were born British subjects. But, it’s the British Nationality Act of 1981 that is most relevant to these powers in the present day. Section 40 of this Act granted powers to the Secretary of State to deprive an individual of their citizenship status on more extensive grounds than was previously allowed. While these grounds still included disloyalty to the monic, they also included unlawfully trading and communicating with an enemy of the state during wartime; and extended also to those who have been sentenced to imprisonment. Just as previously, these powers could only be applied to those who gained their status through naturalisation. The British Nationality Act of 1981 maintained this position. It also included the requirement for the Secretary of State to give written notice of deprivation before the order of deprivation could be made. Over on the Free Movement blog barrister Colin Yeo has written extensively on this issue, highlighting that between 1973 and 2002, the so called “public good” power was not exercised at all. But all of that would change. Taken together, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act of 2002, and the Immigration and Asylum Act 2006 led to a considerable relaxation of constraints on deprivation powers. The former increased the scope of these powers, extending this for use against individuals who had been born British. The latter meant that the Secretary of State became the arbiter of whether deprivation was in the interests of the public good. And what this has meant in practice, is that it can be used even in cases where people are only suspected of activity judged as against the interests of the public good. Since 2006, we’ve seen a significant rise in the use of these “public good” deprivation powers. Cases that are publicly reported, often involved those alleged to be Islamic extremists involved in terrorism related activities, of which Shamima Bagum’s case is just one. Further amendments to Section 40 were introduced to the Immigration Act of 2014. These allowed for deprivation powers to be exercised, even if this would make individual stateless. And this was guided by certain conditions. It included, for example, if the Secretary of State had reasonable grounds to think that the individual could acquire citizenship of another country, a situation more likely to be the case for those of migrant heritage. I’ll put links to the work on this by Colin and the rest of the Free Movement team into the notes for this episode. And I’ll be flagging some recent commentary by Devyani Prabhat, who we heard from in Episode 2, which goes into a bit more detail about the Nationality and Borders Bill. But now, let’s hear more from Zainab about her research into citizenship deprivation.
ZN: So I started looking at, or trying to look for ways to investigate how the courts respond to so called “jihadi brides”. And I found that there were just no real cases that I could look at. There was one case, the case of Tareena Shakil, who managed to escape the IS, and come back to the UK, and then she was taken to court, but her case was unreported; so there was nothing for me to look at, just a few newspaper articles. And then there were Shamima’s case reports.
MB: I remember myself, when that happened, because I remember I was sitting in an Indian restaurant in Ireland while I was doing some research, and I remember looking at that, and kind of immediately thinking how, you know, why is it that even in this circumstance, this is okay; to take somebody’s citizenship away from them? It made me feel like physically sick that that could happen. And immediately the question was, of course, well, is this legal?
ZN: In terms of the legality around the decision, there’s been a really, really big expansion of the powers that the government has to strip people of their citizenship and the circumstances in which they can do it. And the thing that I think gets a lot of people, and also makes people feel so much more vulnerable, is that Shamima had only ever been a British citizen, she’d never had citizenship of another country. But because her mom was born in Bangladesh, there was this assumption or this argument that because her mom had connections to Bangladesh, Shamima had the potential to apply for dual citizenship. What’s happened is that they took away her citizenship on this assumption. Bangladesh just said: No, we’re not taking her, she couldn’t apply for citizenship of Bangladesh, we wouldn’t allow it. And so she’s effectively been made stateless, which means that she has no nationality. And that’s considered a really big “no, no”, because after the Second World War, it was considered a really big issue because of the Jewish community suffering, and rightly so. And so for it to now be kind of something that’s being weaponized by the government against certain communities, more than others, i.e. those who can be dual citizens of more than one state, which means that they’re probably not part of the cultural or ethnic majority in the UK. It’s a really big fear for many people who are kind of minoritized and marginalised in the UK, and it’s mostly people of colour.
MB: I mean, my understanding of that, as you said, you know, it’s a really big “no, no”, but isn’t there provision in international law against statelessness, against governments removing people’s citizenship in that way?
ZN: There is, but then there’s also kind of derogations, or kind of exceptions to that. So they’ll say under specific circumstances, it is allowed. So they still give people, they still give governments that window of opportunity. And, you know, governments, like the UK government, take full advantage of that, unfortunately.
MB: What happened? Because in recent years, we’re seeing an increasing number of people being deprived of their citizenship.
ZN: My short answer to that, and what I argue is that it’s the “war on terror”. I mean, again, the so called “war on terror”, in inverted commas. The idea is that it’s just become this really convenient weapon to now use against communities that they consider to be a threat to national security. And all of this national security stuff has kind of, kind of advanced or kind of risen up because of these fears after 9/11. So that’s why I think there’s a really big kind of increase. But it’s not something that I would say is just about the “war on terror”. I think it’s something that has always been lurking in the background. And I think it’s because of the way that the UK Government likes to treat racialized people. I think it’s also really important to make the point that it’s not just people who are considered to be engaging in or associated with terrorism-related activities, but people who’ve committed crimes, like sex offences, for example, like the Rochdale grooming gang. They committed sex offences which are horrific, and of course, they should be held accountable and convicted of those offences. But if they were white, they wouldn’t have also been stripped of their citizenship; because they were of Pakistani heritage and were naturalised British citizens, they could then be also stripped of their citizenship in addition to their criminal convictions. So it was an extra layer of sanctions on top of what the criminal justice system had already applied and would apply to everybody. They had an extra layer added, which included citizenship stripping, which is why minoritized communities are so much more vulnerable. So it’s just, to me, a contemporary manifestation of coloniality, which has been there for centuries.
MB: What you’ve described so beautifully there is the way in which, kind of nationality legislation, there are issues around securitization, which started to come in the early 2000s. When actually, you know, I think it’s always a really important reminder to remind people that although we live in contemporary hostile environment, led by a Conservative government, some of these provisions were introduced by a previous government, by the Labour government, actually, through that Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act. And then they’ve been taken off and kind of extended, obviously. So you just kind of described this idea of kind of the coloniality of citizenship deprivation. And I just wondered if you could unpack a little bit more what you mean.
ZN: So it was a very convenient tactic of colonial administrators when, kind of, they were engaged in colonial governments, during kind of formal colonialism and colonisation of states, to basically kind of frame people rebelling against colonial governments—because, obviously, somebody has come into their place, into their homes and told them that, you know, their land belongs to them, their homes [now] belong to the colonial governors, etc, etc. If they wanted to push back against that and resist that, that resistance was actually framed as if it was terrorism, what would happen is the colonial governors would say: These people are threatening the security of the colonial state and the colonial administration, we need to deploy emergency powers to protect them from themselves and protect our kind of order and our way of doing things, because the way we do things is best. So in that sense, what they’re actually doing is using emergency powers, against people who are behaving in a completely expected way to them, to their oppression. And that’s kind of transformed into what we see today, where the kind of UK Government is saying: We’re constantly in a state of emergency because of the “war on terror”; because of that, we need to take these extraordinary measures and use these extraordinary emergency powers, which includes citizenship stripping, and we only use it in extreme situations, we’re not using it for everybody, you’re not at risk, it’s totally fine. But what we’re doing is we’re sleepwalking into a situation as a result.They’re kind of telling us we’re using it in extreme situations. Through my time looking at citizenship deprivation, I saw that it was not being used in extreme situations, it was being used in situations where people had made an honest mistake, or people or somebody had done something bad and it impacted on that kind of child, and the child was made to suffer and lose their citizenship or their passports. So in that way, I see it as a contemporary form of coloniality, a form of colonial governance, against racialized people, because they’re the ones who have been disproportionately affected by this, because they could potentially be dual citizens or have dual heritage, compared to white people.
MB: I think what you’ve just described there, really, really clearly, is how the government’s plural, you know, over time, have developed explanatory frameworks that can justify them disproportionately discriminating against British people of colour. And then kind of say: “well, it’s not racist, because actually, you know, these people are X”. I think that’s what you’re saying, really, isn’t it?
ZN: Absolutely. So they’re saying: Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures because of the “war on terror”; we need to use these powers, it’s necessary, but don’t worry, the majority of you won’t be affected. And we’re basically sleepwalking into this kind of discriminative… this constant state of discrimination, but it’s already always been there. So there’s, it’s always been that as kind of state of kind of discrimination and disproportionate effects against minoritized communities in the UK. But this is a very kind of clear and explicit example, and also, it kind of opens the door for other kind of ways of controlling and kind of oppressing minorities and minoritized people.
MB: Before we kind of wrap up, I suppose, you know, the question is, so: what can looking at a case like Shamima Begum, looking at that coloniality of citizenship deprivation, tell us about citizenship and belonging in Britain today?
ZN: It can tell us that the way that our belonging is determined, is very much linked to our heritage, and that people are being treated differently based on where they are associated with or where they supposedly are considered to have come from. And it’s almost like a formalisation and law of this “go back to where you came from” discourse that we’ve had for so long, and you belong or you don’t belong here, because you’re not the “right” skin colour. I think that, for me, it’s definitely made me realise how vulnerable I am and how vulnerable for example my family are because, you know, my parents were both born in former British colonies. And then they came here to the UK and they are naturalised citizens and I’m the daughter of naturalised citizens. There’s one case that really struck me and stayed with me, and that’s the case of Salma Rasull, whose dad lied about his eligibility for nationality. And Salma was kind of, had lived here like most of her life in the UK, and she didn’t find out until much later when she was in her 30s. Like her family was her, you know, she’d had children here, etc, etc. She found out much later that her father had lied and his passport had been cancelled. And because she was his descendant, and got British citizenship by descent from him, her passport had also been cancelled. And then she was given like, I think it was 30 months of leave to remain; so she was given limited leave to remain when she appealed the decision. And so, to me, if anything, that case really struck home because she literally did nothing wrong, not a thing wrong, and somebody like me could fall foul of that in a heartbeat, without even realising or knowing. So like I said, I can’t ever look at my passport again, because who knows whether it would be there the next day or not.
MB: My conversation with Zainab really got me thinking about how, for those from the UK’s racially minoritized communities, Clause 9 is the latest in a longer trajectory of not being considered as equal citizens. There’s that longer history of how Britain’s colonial citizens living outside the UK had their rights and entitlements whittled away through immigration and nationality legislation in the second half of the 20th century. For these children and grandchildren of those migrating to and settling in the UK, among them, colonial citizens had been subjected to immigration controls. Migrant heritage means that their claims to citizenship are inherently more tenuous, more easily removed in ways that are reminiscent of times gone by. And we know that these provisions will not be equally applied to all of those with migrant heritage or dual citizenship. The entanglements of borders and national security that we discussed with Kamran Khan in a previous episode are already in evidence within the use of deprivation powers. Indeed, among reported cases, it’s notable that individuals of Britain’s Muslim communities have been more frequently targeted with these powers. Listening to Zainab and from those protesting Clause 9, it’s clear that this has been experienced not as an isolated incident, but as one that is caught up in a longer history of not being able to take for granted their citizenship status. This is of course, for Britain’s racially minoritized communities, whose history includes having their rights to live and work in the UK questioned. And all of this leads to a conclusion that for them, their experience of being a citizen is one where they’re made to understand that it’s not equivalent to that of their white counterparts. It’s a sobering thought that this is Britain today. I’ll put some suggestions for further reading in the notes for the episode. But before I go, I just want to reflect on one of the key phrases that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel MP, has used in her defence of Clause 9. In this defence, she describes citizenship as a privilege, not a right. I’m not sure what you think about when you consider citizenship, but that’s certainly an unusual definition to my ears. So I’ll leave you with some final questions. For who is citizenship a privilege? Who is expected to be grateful that they’re British, and adjust their behaviour accordingly? And how might this sit within longer histories of racial injustice and inequalities?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Who Do We Think We Are? – a podcast series produced and hosted by me, Michaela Benson, as part of my British Academy mid-career fellowship, “Britain and its overseas citizens”. If you like what you’ve heard, take a moment to subscribe on your preferred podcast platform. Special thanks to Emma Houlton and Andrew Proctor at Art of Podcast for their production and post production support, and to George Kalivis for the cover art and archival research. Finally, to find out more about me and my research, you can follow me on Twitter @Michaelacbenson. See you again next time.
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