Deprivation of citizenship

Deprivation of citizenship legislation is quietly stripping people of their British citizenship. Since 2003, the incidence of this has increased as powers have expanded, primarily affecting British Muslims. But the dark reality is, this could happen to most of us.

Foundational to citizenship deprivation is something called the ‘good character’ requirement. This affects the granting of British citizenship and its revocation (at first from those with dual and/or acquired citizenship) under the 1981 British Nationality Act. Some of the criteria are war crimes, terrorism, or anything else ‘contrary to the public good’. These are the national security grounds on which people have been deprived of their citizenship, after being accused of (complicity in) terrorist activities. 

The rise in deportations in recent history has been made possible by a massive expansion in the scope of who can be targeted for deportation. By restricting who is eligible for British citizenship at birth and introducing stricter conditions for entry and settlement in Britain, more people became ‘deportable’. Between 1962 and 1981, British immigration and nationality laws rapidly reduced the number of people entitled to settlement in Britain by depriving colonial and Commonwealth citizens of access to British citizenship. Citizenship deprivation has disproportionately affected those from, or with heritage from, former British colonies, and redefined who is truly welcomed in this country in the process. For Muslim and racialised citizens, the practice of citizenship deprivation has made their Britishness conditional.

The origins of citizenship deprivation

The hostile immigration and nationality laws of the second half of the twentieth century steadily reduced who had immediate access to British citizenship from birth; in 1948 the Nationality Act granted citizenship for all citizens and subjects of the British Empire, but by 1981 the new British Nationality ended this entitlement. The 1981 Act also laid out the circumstances in which someone could be deprived of their British citizenship: if the means through which they had become a naturalised citizen were fraudulent, and if they held the citizenship of another country. 

Revealingly, William Whitelaw MP, the Home Secretary at the time, introduced the Act by saying “Our British citizenship, which gives full rights to British citizens, should be confined to those who belong to this country and who have a close relationship with it.” It is implied here that there were certain people who previously held British citizenship who did not “belong” in Britain, i.e. current and former British colonial subjects.

So, what criteria has the Government introduced to strip British citizenship from people who were citizens from birth and held only British citizenship?

In 2003, an amendment to the British Nationality Act 1981 was passed, which widened the grounds for deprivation of citizenship to include doing ‘anything seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom or a British overseas territory’. This amendment was nicknamed the ‘Hamza amendment’, as it was passed specifically to deport one man, Abu Hamza, a naturalised British citizen. 

Prior to 2003, the power to deprive someone of their British citizenship had not been used for 30 years. It has been used at least 215 times on national security/‘public good’ grounds since.

Successive laws have eased this process for the Government: the 2004 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act allowed for deportation while appeals were ongoing; the 2006 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act required deprivation to be ‘conducive to the public good’ rather than key to the ‘vital interests’ of the UK; and the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act removed the requirement to notify subjects of citizenship deprivation of that decision entirely. Perhaps most significantly, the Immigration Act 2014 allowed for citizenship deprivation when the affected person would otherwise be made stateless, where the Home Secretary had reasonable grounds for believing that they were able to become nationals of another country.

Many of these extensions of citizenship powers were passed in relation to specific cases that had been successful upon appeal: the 2003 amendment targeted Abu Hamza; the 2014 Immigration Act was passed to deprive Hilal al Jedda of citizenship for a third time; and Clause 9 of the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act was passed in response to a case that was won on appeal as the government failed to notify the recipient of her deprivation of citizenship. The fact that laws have been introduced to target specific people who had their initial deprivation of citizenship overturned is extremely worrying, as the Government has been able to bend and amend the law to banish individuals.

Who is welcome?

Evidence has repeatedly shown that the subjects of citizenship deprivation in Britain have almost exclusively been Muslim and largely from a Middle Eastern, South or West Asian or North African background. The right to belong in Britain for racialised groups is therefore highly conditional. 

Recently, citizenship deprivation powers have been used against members of migratised communities who were born and raised in Britain. For migratised individuals who have spent their whole lives here, even this is not enough to guarantee their unconditional status as a British citizen. The result of this is the British Government trying to deport people to the country that their parents or grandparents were raised in.

When the Government calls British citizenship “a privilege, not a right”, then, this is a privilege that has racial and religious dimensions to it, where the right to belong is virtually uncontested for White British citizens. The increasing ease of deprivation of citizenship to the point where the criteria for doing so are comparable to that of deportation is alarming: in 2006, the necessary criteria for deprivation shifted from being key to the ‘vital interests’ of the UK to being ‘conducive to the public good’. This shows the precarious nature of belonging, and how it is influenced based on intersections of class, race, religion or nationality.

At Migrants’ Rights Network, we do not look at migration as a siloed issue. It’s vital we understand and raise awareness of how immigration status intersects with other aspects of someone’s identity including race, nationality or religion. As part of our Hostile Office campaign, we will be exploring how racism, Islamophobia and colonial ideologies are central to how the UK’s immigration and nationality legislation is constructed, and to who it negatively impacts.


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