Priti Patel Covid-19 Press Conference 22/05| Photo: UK Prime Minister – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article Priti Patel Covid-19 Press Conference 22/05| Photo: UK Prime Minister – Flickr | cropped from original | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | license linked at bottom of article

The government’s Nationality and Borders bill which threatens the citizenship of ethnic minority Britons is a dangerous and racist law which must be resisted, argues Fatimah Ahmed

When Shamima Begum was stripped of her British citizenship in 2019, many of us feared and warned that this would set a dangerous precedent. Since then, the Home Office has continued to expand its powers further, potentially jeopardising six million people.

Just this week, the Nationality and Borders bill passed through the House of Commons, which included a deeply disturbing new clause allowing the government to deprive individuals of their citizenship without any warning or notice, if it is not ‘reasonably practicable to do so,’ or if it is not in the interest of the public. These terms are intentionally broad and unclear; they give an unconditional and unprecedented authority to the Home Office, whilst making it even more difficult to appeal the decision.

The government’s most recent proposal means that 41% of people from non-white ethnic minority groups could face losing their citizenship: this includes almost 50% of British Asians and 39% of black Britons. In contrast only 5% of people categorised as white are at risk of losing their British status.

These statistics highlight who will suffer the most impact through this bill, and it reveals the government’s racialised, two-tiered approach to citizenship, yet it is consistent with the plans and measures that were proposed before and after Shamima Begum’s citizenship was revoked.

Racist precedents

Under Tony Blair’s leadership, after the 7 July London bombings, the Prevent programme was expanded and new measures were implemented that meant dual nationals were at risk of losing their citizenship.

Theresa May increased the government’s power to deny citizenship in 2010 by introducing a new measure to include foreign-born British citizens without dual nationality under existing rules. In 2017, over 100 people were stripped of their British citizenship, and in 2019 it was reported that the number of people losing their citizenship had increased by 600% in a single year, from 2016 to 2017.

Around this time, ex-Prime Minister David Cameron described the migrants in Calais as a ‘swarm’. The use of this language by politicians to describe desperate families and people is disturbingly dehumanising, it condenses their courage and desperation down to an ‘inconvenience’ for which we have no responsibility. We saw that same sinister sentiment echoed a fortnight ago when 27 people drowned in the English Channel. Rather than addressing the devastating impact of her own policies, Priti Patel bizarrely focused on the ‘ruthless criminal gangs’ as though they were undefeatable story-book villains.

This is a problem that could be solved through carving out and creating safe and accessible routes for asylum. More than that, however, every country has a responsibility under international law to help refugees, and these actions and the accompanying government rhetoric are in flagrant and shocking breach of basic humanitarian norms.

Instead, the Nationality and Borders Bill will allow the Home Office being a policy of “pushbacks” (which it is currently facing legal challenges for), to criminalise people who try to rescue drowning refugees, and to “offshore” asylum claims.

Shattering basic rights

Under existing rules, the Home Secretary is able to take action if she thinks it will be ‘conducive to the public good’, which is deliberately vague, and allows room for it to mean whatever the Home Secretary decides it means. The Home Office has said that British citizenship is a ‘privilege, not a right’: a privilege removable by default for those who are seen as not quite ‘British enough’.

The existing powers to remove citizenship are already a deadly threat to the basic right to legal equality in this country. The new bill adds to that a layer of Kafkaesque unaccountability for the exercise of increasingly arbitrary state power, whose racism is ever more overt.

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