The UK’s Unacceptable Obsession with Stripping British Citizens of Their UK Nationality


In January, Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, secured cross-party support for an alarming last-minute addition to the current Immigration Bill, allowing her to strip foreign-born British citizens of their citizenship, even if it leaves them stateless.

The timing appeared profoundly cynical. May already has the power to strip dual nationals of their citizenship, as a result of legislation passed in 2002 “enabling the Home Secretary to remove the citizenship of any dual nationals who [have] done something ‘seriously prejudicial’ to the UK,” as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism described it in February 2013, but “the power had rarely been used before the current government.”

In December, the Bureau, which has undertaken admirable investigation into the Tory-led mission to strip people of their citizenship, further clarified the situation, pointing out that the existing powers are part of the British Nationality Act, and allow the Home Secretary to “terminate the British citizenship of dual-nationality individuals if she believes their presence in the UK is ‘not conducive to the public good’, or if they have obtained their citizenship through fraud.” The Bureau added, “Deprivation of citizenship orders can be made with no judicial approval in advance, and take immediate effect — the only route for people to argue their case is through legal appeals. In all but two known cases, the orders have been issued while the individual is overseas, leaving them stranded abroad during legal appeals that can take years” — and also, of course, raising serious questions about who is supposedly responsible for them when their British citizenship is removed.

The Bureau has established that 41 individuals have been stripped of their British nationality since 2002, and that 37 of these cases have taken place under Theresa May, since the Tory-led coalition government was formed in May 2010, with 27 of these cases being on the grounds that their presence in the UK is “not conducive to the public good.” In December, the Bureau confirmed that, in 2013, Theresa May “removed the citizenship of 20 individuals — more than in every other year of the Coalition government put together.” As the Bureau suggested in February 2013, it appears that, in two cases, the stripping of UK citizenship led to the men in question subsequently being killed by US drone attacks.

The two men, Bilal al-Berjawi, a British-Lebanese citizen who grew up in London, and Mohamed Sakr, a British-Egyptian citizen who was born in the UK, travelled to Somalia in 2009, where they allegedly became involved with the militant group al-Shabaab. Theresa May stripped both men of their British nationalities in 2010, and, as the Bureau described it:

In June 2011 Mr. Berjawi was wounded in the first known US drone strike in Somalia and [in 2012] was killed by a drone strike – within hours of calling his wife in London to congratulate her on the birth of their first son. His family have claimed that US forces were able to pinpoint his location by monitoring the call he made to his wife in the UK. Mr. Sakr, too, was killed in a US airstrike in February 2012 … Mr. Sakr’s former UK solicitor said there appeared to be a link between the Home Secretary removing citizenships and subsequent US actions. “It appears that the process of deprivation of citizenship made it easier for the US to then designate Mr. Sakr as an enemy combatant, to whom the UK owes no responsibility whatsoever,” Saghir Hussain said.

Ian Macdonald QC, the president of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, who has long opposed the disturbing trend towards secrecy and unaccountability in Britain’s post-9/11 anti-terror laws, added that depriving people of their citizenship “means that the British government can completely wash their hands if the security services give information to the Americans who use their drones to track someone and kill them.” He also described the citizenship orders as “sinister,” and said of the government, “They’re using executive powers and I think they’re using them quite wrongly. It’s not open government; it’s closed, and it needs to be exposed.”

Another case exposed by the Bureau involves a man stranded in Pakistan, who says he is under threat from the Taliban and unable to find work to support his wife and three children His story was published on March 17, entitled, “‘My British citizenship was everything to me. Now I am nobody’ — A former British citizen speaks out.”

In another case, as Helena Kennedy QC noted in an article for the Bureau on March 20, another dual nationality UK citizen, Mahdi Hashi, “was picked up by Djibouti’s secret police, whom he told he was British. After calls, the agents told him the British authorities said he was no longer a British citizen. He had no other passport and was therefore rendered stateless. This meant he had no access to consular advice as to his rights; no representations were made that he should be brought before a court. As a result he was interrogated at length with no legal protection, handed over to American agents, further interrogated and then hooded and flown to the US without any extradition proceedings.” For more on Mahdi Hashi’s case, see this article in the Nation by Aviva Stahl, and you can listen to Aviva Stahl, in a recent radio interview with Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola here.

In December, a former senior Foreign Office official told the Bureau that “the steep rise in cases is at least partly due to the large number of British nationals travelling to Syria to participate in the civil war there,” as the Bureau described it. The former official said, “This [deprivation of citizenship] is happening. There are somewhere between 40 and 240 Brits in Syria and we are probably not quick as we should be to strip their citizenship.” The former official also “described the practice of revoking the citizenship of British nationals fighting in Syria as ‘an open secret’ in Foreign Office circles.”

In January, May presented her addition to the bill as, in the Guardian‘s words, “a last-ditch bid to reduce a damaging Tory rebellion in the Commons” after the Tory MP Dominic Raab had tabled an amendment seeking to change the law so that, as the BBC put it, “foreign criminals can no longer use Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights — a right to a family life — to escape deportation.”

May correctly told MPs that Raab’s amendment was “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights, but the timing of the decision to add the citizen-stripping clause — Clause 60 — to the bill instead, which, disturbingly, passed by 297 votes to 34, was deeply suspicious. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted earlier this month, May had announced her plans via the Times on November 12, 2013, in response to a ruling by the UK Supreme Court that “the Home Office had illegally revoked the UK citizenship of an Iraqi-born man, Hilal al-Jedda, because he held no other nationality.” (May subsequently issued another stripping al-Jedda’s citizenship for a second time).

The Bureau also noted on December 23 that May had already “held at least one confidential meeting with Coalition MPs to discuss the plans, including inserting an amendment into the Immigration Bill allowing her to remove the nationality of those who have acquired British citizenship, even if it will make them stateless, if they have done something ‘seriously prejudicial to the vital interests’ of the UK.”

In response to Theresa May’s dreadful innovations, Helena Kennedy QC wrote an article for the Bureau, in which she condemned the government for its disdain for the law following the Supreme Court’s Hilal al-Jedda ruling. She wrote, “The Government does not take well to judgments saying it has done something contrary to law,” and also pointed out:

The proposal to allow the Home Secretary to deprive a naturalised citizen of his or her citizenship not only risks damaging the UK’s international relations but also risks breaching a whole swathe of international obligations. The reason the government gives is that they want to prevent terrorism, but deprivation of citizenship is not a viable alternative to the responsible prosecution of alleged criminal conduct.

Citizenship is not a privilege; it is a protected legal status. The US, Germany and many other states would not dream of removing citizenship under any circumstances. The answer to conduct we deem criminal is to prosecute it.

Deprivation with all its consequences in the modern world is equivalent to a penal sanction of the most serious kind – but imposed without a criminal trial, without conviction, without close and open examination of the evidence and without the opportunity to defend yourself. All of this is contrary to due process — a fundamental human right.

Kennedy’s comment were in marked contrast to the position taken by the Home Office in December, when approached by the Bureau. On that occasion, the Home Office declined to comment on the reasons for the rise in deprivation of citizenship orders but said, “Citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and the Home Secretary will remove British citizenship from individuals where she feels it is conducive to the public good to do so.”

Helena Kennedy is correct, of course, but sadly most MPs failed to recognise the importance of proper legal safeguards for all citizens, and, last week, although there was a heated debate, the House of Lords failed to remove Clause 60 from the legislation, despite criticism by lawyersby some MPs and by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which issued a report on February 26 that, as the Bureau put it, “questioned the timing of Theresa May’s amendment on statelessness and said that the new power ran a ‘very great risk of breaching the UK’s obligations’ to other nations if Britons were to be made stateless while overseas.”

The clause passed despite the legal action charity Reprieve pointing out that the measures would “leave an estimated 3.4 million British citizens vulnerable to being arbitrarily made stateless in England and Wales alone, according to figures from the 2011 census,” and noting that, in 1958, the US Supreme Court denounced the stripping of citizenship as “a form of punishment more primitive than torture.”

As Reprieve described it, “Such a measure was held by the United States Supreme Court in the 1950s to constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and that the ‘use of denationalization as a punishment [means] the total destruction of the individual’s status in organized society. It is a form of punishment more primitive than torture, for it destroys for the individual the political existence that was centuries in the development…In short, [s/he] has lost the right to have rights.'”

As Helena Kennedy also explained, “Deprivation of citizenship is another way of avoiding the old-fashioned process of putting people on trial if they are suspected of doing wrong. It is a way of short-cutting the rule of law. Hannah Arendt said that statelessness deprives people of ‘the right to have rights’. It is a policy that has been used by the worst tyrannical regimes. It was why so many people wandered the world stateless after the Second World War and why in 1961 the UK with other nations signed up to the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This intended change in the law will be a source of shame to us in the years to come. It must be opposed by us all.”

I will be posting a transcript of the House of Lords debate very soon, but the only hope now, legislatively, is that many of the Lords’ concerns will be “discussed at a meeting ahead of report stage,” as Alice Ross of the Bureau explained in an article compiling her live tweets of the debate. I hope at that point there will be further publicity, and further opportunities for this dreadful development to be challenged and, eventually, overturned.

Note: For further information on Clause 60, see Liberty’s briefing here.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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59 Responses

  1. Barry Shedden says...

    Absolute rubbish. It was long overdue. It is about time that people in and outside Britain started to realize that citizenship of this country is a privilege which carries duties and responsibilities and if you fail in those then you have no right to citizenship of this country. For too long we have allowed people to abuse our tolerance and take advantage of us. Enough is enough and we have had more than enough of this.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Barry, one problem with your viewpoint – beyond your unwise endorsement of the executive’s self-claimed right to make this kind of decision without due process – is that it fails to take into account that everyone must have some nationality or other. You can only strip dual nationals of their UK citizenship if you can send them somewhere else – and that may not always be as easy as you, and those who think like you, would like.

  3. Marion Vermeersch says...

    Can’t believe all those months have gone by since I last wrote, Andy. My citizenship here is still very much up in the air as the new legislation purportedly restoring citizenship to “more of the Lost Canadians” has not yet been implemented. As more details have come out, it appears it will be limited to “first generation born abroad” only. That was how they decided to give back citizenship to the War Brides (our mothers). But I am the “second generation born abroad” so don’t expect to qualify.

    Even though I have been here since 1946, worked for over 50 years & paid all taxes, voted, etc., I still hear from people like the writer above who think we’ve been taking advantage of the Canadian-born residents all our lives and don’t deserve citizenship. That’s how our government got elected, by meeting demands of such harsh views. There are huge numbers of people here descended from those who were “kicked out” of Britain as children (see Home Children & Child Farm Labour under the Empire Settlement Act)and are now running into citizenship problems. So, you are right, Andy, it’s not as easy as some might think, to send dual nationals elsewhere.

    Seems like bad news everywhere, but nevertheless I would like to wish you a very Happy New Year and a hope that people may feel kinder and things may get better for all.

    Best Wishes,

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Happy New Year to you too, Marion. Great to hear from you again, but sorry that the occasion is tinged with such injustice and uncertainty. I hope 2015 brings better news.

  5. sergio says...

    Very simple, they are not being stripped of their citizenship for being white doves and inocent. They are killers and terrorist that need to be dealt with. They got what they deserve.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    That sounds so easy, doesn’t it, Sergio, but these are extra-judicial decisions, taken without any reference to the legal system, and that’s not acceptable in societies that claim to respect the rule of law. We are being asked to trust Theresa May as judge and jury, and she in turn is asking us to trust, without question, decisions taken by the security services, who actually make mistakes. Does that surprise you? Perhaps you are the kind of person who also thinks that the police never make mistakes either.

  7. ‘A Dangerous International Precedent’: British Government Embraces Killer Drones says...

    […] to kill its own citizens away from any country in which it has not authorized war, it has also expanded a process of stripping its own citizens of their citizenship with “no judicial approval in […]

  8. ‘A Dangerous International Precedent’: British Government Embraces Killer Drones says...

    […] to kill its own citizens away from any country in which it has not authorized war, it has also expanded a process of stripping its own citizens of their citizenship with “no judicial approval in […]

  9. martin rodrigues says...

    Some of 10% British citizen don’t deserve to be British,luck of understanding culture values and principles simple ignored, no minimum educational standards ,i don’t blame the HOME OFFICE…

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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