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Priti Patel

Priti Patel. Photo: Policy Exchange / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The Nationality and Borders Bill enshrines outrageous measures threatening the internationally agreed rights and welfare of children, argues Aaron Gates-Lincoln

Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill has been controversial since its announcement to say the least. It has faced criticisms for its extremely harsh treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and its contribution to exacerbating the Tory government’s hostile environment for migrants residing within the UK.

The Bill will allow the government to imprison for longer asylum seekers arriving ‘illegally’ in the UK, to continue detaining asylum seekers in inhumane conditions, such as those found in the Napier Barracks, and potentially to use offshore detention centres, as well as to criminalise those who try to save drowning refugees in the Channel. 

It has now been argued by MPs that the Bill also risks failing to protect stateless children within the country. A report produced by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has highlighted concerns that the Bill will create significant barriers to granting stateless children (children with no nationality) citizenship within the UK. It also showcases the risk that the Bill poses to UK human-rights obligations, arguing that the actions it will take will not adhere to the expected rights that should be protected for children. 

The Bill is currently making its way through Parliament, and it is expected to alter the UK immigration system radically, to become even more brutal and cut-throat. It is proposing that new requirements be introduced for the registration of stateless children, which would make it more difficult for them to obtain British nationality and citizenship. It specifically states that when applying for citizenship, such stateless children will only be entitled to British citizenship if the Home Secretary is satisfied with the evidence that the child is unable to obtain another nationality. 

The children subjected to this rule are in most cases not stateless by choice. If one is born in the UK, this does not give one the right to be automatically considered a British citizen. The children of immigrants who have not been given this status may be viewed as stateless, especially when their parents have been prevented from conferring their nationality onto their children by discriminatory laws around the world.

Condemnation and opposition

Following this discovery in the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Joint Committee for Human Rights has called for the Bill to be amended to ensure that the rights of children are emphasised and protected. They found that it is vital that citizenship is only withheld from a child if it is possible for their parents to confer their existing status to the child without any legal or administrative hurdles.

They also criticised the continued use of laws which state that before being granted British citizenship, children be required to demonstrate ‘good character’. The idea of judging the character of a child as potentially ‘undesirable’ is highly problematic, and this form of immigration control simply opens the door to more discrimination against migrants and their children.

Harriet Harman, the chair of the JCHR, stated that ‘the government must do more to ensure rights are fully protected in British nationality law, in particular recognising its obligations to stateless children which the Bill does not fully do as it stands.’ She continued on to say that ‘the “good character” test should not be applied to children and the government must also ensure that fees do not recreate barriers that it otherwise would have removed by addressing historic discrimination.’

In discussions about the threat that the Bill poses to stateless children, Solange Valdez-Symonds, chief executive of the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC), also had criticisms. She argued that ‘these citizenship rights are integral to the sense of security and identity of all children born and growing up here – and blocking these rights makes children feel profoundly excluded and alienated.’ In response, a spokesperson from the Home Office has stated that ‘the Nationality and Borders Bill will fix the broken asylum system so that it is fair but firm … the Bill fully complies with all of our domestic and international obligations, including on human rights.’

However, it is clear that this is not the case, and the rights and protection of stateless children are being put at risk. It is necessary, at least, that amendments are made in the legislation during the next stage of the parliamentary process, to ensure that the UK fulfils its obligation to protect vulnerable children. It is also vital that the process for stateless children to acquire British citizenship is made easier and less brutal; to allow children to be children, instead of worrying about the status of their nationality. 

These measures are provoking widespread condemnation. Extra-parliamentary protest, and galvanising the widest possible public outrage will be needed to make the government back down. Anti-racist and migrant solidarity groups, therefore, should continue to mobilise and exert pressure on the government to drop the Bill, and show clear opposition to Priti Patel’s criminalisation of refugees and migrants.

Aaron Gates-London is a writer for the Immigration Advice Service

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