The appalling mistreatment of a stateless human rights activist, barriers to British citizenship, and the power to bring change

Cynthia Orchard Statelessness Policy and Casework Coordinator, Asylum Aid / Migrants Resource Centre
/ 6 mins read

Persecution and statelessness inflicted by the Bahraini Government

Sayed Alwadaei is a soft-spoken but determined man from Bahrain. There is compassion and sadness in his eyes – born, I presume, from the heartbreaking circumstances he and his family members have suffered.

Sayed participated in pro-democracy human rights protests in Bahrain around the time of the Arab Spring and was tortured by the Bahraini government as a result. He fled and sought protection in the UK in 2012, where he was granted refugee status remarkably quickly. He is now the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, based in London. In 2015, the Bahraini government stripped Sayed of Bahraini citizenship, a punishment it has, in the last few years, inflicted on hundreds of others who have been brave enough to speak out against their government’s abuses. Human Rights Watch and news agencies have reported that the Bahraini government also targeted Sayed’s wife, Duaa, whilst she was in Bahrain and continues to persecute Sayed and Duaa’s relatives because of their relationship to Sayed.

Sayed is now stateless and so is his youngest daughter, who was born in the UK in 2017. Duaa is still a Bahraini citizen, but she could not pass on her nationality because Bahraini nationality law discriminates on the basis of sex – it does not allow women to confer nationality to their children. Similar laws still exist in about 25 countries.

Barriers to ending statelessness in the UK: nationality law, Home Office delays, and high fees

When they had been in the UK with refugee status for 5 years (in July 2017), Sayed and Duaa became eligible for indefinite leave to remain. At the time, Duaa was pregnant with their second child. Under British nationality law, if a child is born in the UK to a parent who is ‘settled’ (eg, has indefinite leave to remain), the child acquires British nationality automatically at birth (British Nationality Act 1981, Section 1(1)). The situation is different, however, for a child born to a parent who has only refugee status or some other limited (or no) leave to remain. Under Section 1(3) of the British Nationality Act, such a child has a right to acquire British citizenship upon a parent being granted British citizenship or indefinite leave to remain, but the family must apply and pay the registration fee (currently £1,012, about two-thirds of which is profit to the Home Office). Another provision of the British Nationality Act (Schedule 2, Para 3) permits children born stateless in the UK to register as British citizens after 5 years, if other criteria are met, and upon payment of the relevant fee.

Sayed and Duaa wanted to avoid their child being born stateless and having to register and pay the fee for her to acquire British citizenship. They asked the Home Office to process their applications for indefinite leave to remain promptly, before the baby’s birth. Unfortunately, the Home office ignored their requests for months, and their daughter was born stateless in late 2017. Now, over a year since they applied for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, Sayed and Duaa still haven’t had a decision on their application. Their daughter remains stateless.

If and when Sayed and Duaa want to naturalise as British citizens (they will be eligible after 5 years with refugee status and 1 year with indefinite leave to remain, providing other criteria are met), they will have to pay the even higher fee for adults -- currently £1,330 (plus other associated costs).

Fees for British citizenship have risen drastically in the last 10 years. There are no exemptions or reductions of British citizenship fees for refugees or stateless persons, despite twin provisions in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons through which States (including the UK) have agreed that they are obliged  to ‘make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings’. The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness also obligates States to prevent statelessness, requiring in particular that a State ‘shall grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless. ... Subject to the provisions of paragraph 2 of this Article, no such application may be rejected’ (my emphasis). Paragraph 2 allows States to impose certain requirements, but payment of a fee is not one of the permitted conditions. Most other countries have much lower citizenship fees and/or offer waivers or reductions to stateless persons, refugees, and children (there are some examples here and you can further compare countries’ approaches to acquisition of citizenship via ENS’s Statelessness Index).

Until the government changes its position, many people will continue to struggle to pay the fees or be barred from acquiring British citizenship because they can’t afford it. In some children’s cases (as in Sayed’s child’s case) fees apply only because the Home Office delayed in making a decision about a parent’s indefinite leave to remain.

We can make a difference

Asylum Aid, the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, the University of Liverpool Law Clinic and others have repeatedly raised the unfairness of the citizenship fees with the British government (including through a joint submission to the Universal Periodic Review and other measures). So far, the government has refused to offer any fee waivers for stateless persons or refugees, or even for children who have a non-discretionary entitlement to British nationality. The UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is currently investigating the fees for citizenship and immigration applications, and we hope that this and other efforts will lead to change.

I recently co-organised a conference (Challenges and Opportunities, Theory and Practice; London, 8-9 July) with my colleague Judith Carter from the University of Liverpool Law Clinic, at which Sayed gave a compelling talk about his personal ordeal and the situation of other stateless people from Bahrain. The conference brought together about 100 people from several countries – stateless activists, scholars, researchers, students, legal practitioners, UNHCR staff, front-line NGO workers, policy advocates, philosophers, Parliamentarians, and others. We shared information and resources; made new professional contacts; raised awareness through social media; and were inspired and energised to continue and expand work to address the often tragic causes and consequences of statelessness. A website to share information from the conference (parts of which were filmed) – is coming soon (likely by September 2018). We will advertise it through:

A wise professor and human rights advocate, Margaret Bedggood, once told me that the structures that govern this world were all created – and if they were created, we can change them. Statelessness, like many phenomena, is linked to structures of power, empowerment, and disempowerment – the power of the State to include or exclude people from citizenship and other rights; the power of citizens to vote and change their governments (or not); the disempowerment that usually comes with lack of citizenship; and myriad other manifestations of power. But we all have the power to help change injustices. Sayed and other advocates are taking action to improve respect for rights in Bahrain. Our recent conference (which is, in the grand scheme, a small but important contribution) and many other efforts provide connections to help empower people to address statelessness and other human rights violations, and ultimately, to change things, so that Sayed’s children and all our children face a better future.

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