Citizenship deprivation: How Britain took the lead on dismantling citizenship

Bobbie Mills, Writer and researcher in Migration and Politics
/ 6 mins read

...although we may ... sometimes persecute people because they are foreign, the deeper truth is that we almost always make foreign those whom we persecute.
Bonnie Honig, A Legacy of Xenophobia

What has put Britain on the vanguard of citizenship deprivation?

This blog post, adapted from a COMPAS Working Paper 'A privilege, not a right,' seeks to develop Honig's argument by considering the resurrection of citizenship deprivation powers in the name of the War on Terror. These powers had lain dormant throughout Europe since the end of WWII until they were updated in the UK in 2002 (then again in 2006 and in 2014). This contrasts with their being debated and dropped by most other liberal democracies over the past decade. Britain has long been breaking ground in updating citizenship deprivation powers to the 21st century. Only now is it spreading, emulated last year by Canada, and now tentatively by France in the wake of the November Paris attacks.

Cancelling citizenship is not to be confused with cancelling passports. Individuals stripped of their British citizenship have faced deportation from the UK. They have been unable to claim protection from Britain when detained, tortured or killed (e.g. by drone strike) in another country. Naturalised British citizens have been blamed for their own statelessness when they failed or refused to obtain their prior nationality (but this did not stick with the Supreme Court, see Secretary of State for the Home Department v Al-Jedda).

Not only does Britain have the most developed legal deprivation powers among liberal democracies, it has also applied these powers much more liberally. Where most liberal democracies will go decades without issuing a single revocation, between 2006 and 2014 the British government served 27 deprivation orders on national security grounds alone. Why is Britain on the vanguard of citizenship deprivation? This is the question animating this post. Its answer proposes a further step in Honig's argument and helps expose what citizenship, done the British way, does and does not guarantee. It also sketches a path that began with deportation and has wound towards the renewal of forms of state expulsion from which the citizen has only temporarily been exempt.

Abu Hamza - the citizen who needed to be deported

UK citizenship deprivation powers were updated by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. They appeared alongside the introduction of the Life in the UK citizenship test, meant to re-inject value into citizenship following a crisis of multiculturalism. The powers were brought explicitly in line with the European Convention on Human Rights - applying only to dual nationals regardless of how citizenship was obtained so as not to discriminate between birthright or naturalised citizens and to prevent statelessness.

Initially, next to no attention was paid to the renewed powers. It was the case of Abu Hamza, whose violent hate speech caused national outrage in 2003, that would shape how these powers have developed and been used to this day.

Abu Hamza was born an Egyptian citizen and acquired British citizenship through marriage to a British woman. As public outrage mounted over his violent hate speech directed against Jews, homosexuals and non-Muslims, the common call to action from Parliament and the press was to remove him from the UK.

The hitch was that Hamza's citizenship prevented his deportation. The extended citizenship deprivation powers of the 2002 NIA Act would not come into power until later in 2003, and there was a tone of frustration amongst those advocating Hamza's removal. David Cameron, not yet leader of the Conservative party, said of the matter in 2003: "We must make sure we have the right to deport people who are a threat."

Why was it so clear that Abu Hamza should be dealt with via deportation rather than tried and sentenced as a domestic criminal? What precisely was this “threat” he posed to the UK?

Abu Hamza was simultaneously portrayed as a hook-handed, eye-patched super villain, the inassimilable Muslim and the scrounging immigrant. The cleric received as much press attention for his bigamy and welfare fraud as his anti-Western hate speech. Hamza was foreign in everything but law.

The instinctive calls for his deportation can be explained as an extension of what William Walters describes as the governmentalized logic of the deportation regime which has come to target specific alien social behaviours considered to pose a threat to the population. It is in this way that the full sense of Cameron’s comment on “people who pose a threat” can be understood. The "threat" posed by Abu Hamza endangered not only national security but also the population in terms of his social and sexual behaviour. Hamza’s British citizenship was treated as a contingent and meaningless technicality - "won" through a bigamous marriage.

UK citizenship deprivation powers therefore became something that the law 'should' normatively permit in order to facilitate the deportation of those who manifestly 'should' be removed, a technical step within the legitimate process of deportation.

This is not a process of unmaking the citizen - of casting foes as foreign to the national body. If citizenship deprivation is considered a necessary step to enable deportation – a measure reserved exclusively for foreign nationals – then the individual in question must already appear as foreign for the very notion of these measures to occur to the public imaginary. Whilst Honig’s argument that “we almost always make foreign those whom we persecute” is a powerful one, it must be added that the appearance of foreignness not only shapes who states persecute, it also shapes how those people are persecuted.

When deprivation powers were updated in 2002 they were not tightly associated with deportation. They initially appeared alongside other measures like citizenship tests to reinvest citizenship with value, and may have been used very differently if it had not been for the high profile Hamza case. The powers were updated in 2006 following the 2005 terror attacks in London. The fact that the 2006 amendments brought deprivation powers explicitly in line with deportation - reducing the standard required to deprive citizenship from the individual having done "anything seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK" to the same standard required for deportation, "conducive to the public good" - demonstrates the lasting influence of Hamza's case.

In Reverse: The consequences of coupling citizenship deprivation with deportation

The tying of citizenship deprivation to deportation has had far-reaching consequences. Under the coalition government and Home Secretary Theresa May, deprivation orders tended to be applied while the individual was outside of the UK, and had therefore effectively expelled themselves. Temporary Exclusion Orders (TEOs) were introduced in 2015. TEOs can prevent UK citizens who cannot be legally stripped of their citizenship (e.g. because they would be left stateless) from freely re-entering the UK without contact with the authorities.

While William Walters' history of state expulsion speculated that deportation risks losing legitimacy because of its historical association with illiberal state practices, the case of the UK shows the reverse to be true: The legitimacy attached to deportation has paved the way for the revival of measures tantamount to banishment. For a limited moment in modern history the citizen had sole leave to enter and remain. That time may now be up, as Canada has followed the UK's example and the Paris Attacks appear to have rocked France's aversion to citizenship stripping.

This research builds on the growing body of literature that is exposing the fact that national citizenship does not, and possibly never did, guarantee the right to have rights. Some might argue that international law and human rights leave little practical difference between citizens and non-citizens - meaning the only thing 'special' about citizenship is having the right to vote in national elections and the right to enter and remain. In Britain, citizenship doesn't even get you that far. Prisoners cannot vote, and not everyone can remain.

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