Citizenship for sale – At a cost stateless people can ill afford

Cynthia Orchard, Legal Policy Officer at Asylum Aid
/ 8 mins read

Stateless people in the UK face enormous hurdles in the road to becoming British citizens. One of those barriers is the extraordinarily high cost of acquiring British citizenship.

The UK Government has taken some steps to ensure its approach to statelessness complies with international law. In many respects, British nationality law complies with the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Further, the UK introduced a statelessness determination procedure in 2013, which was an important step towards achieving compliance with the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. There is, however, considerable room for improvement in the UK’s treatment of stateless persons. This article focuses on one key issue: the cost of acquiring British citizenship. 

A colleague and I met recently with several stateless people from Kuwait, all of whom have permission to stay in the UK, who told us that the high price of British citizenship made it seem an impossibility for them and their families. They are people who faced discrimination and/or persecution for much of their lives outside the UK, which they are still struggling to overcome. Now, they continue to face an overwhelming problem: they cannot afford to become citizens of the UK.

The UK is obligated to reduce the costs for stateless persons to acquire British citizenship.

The British Government agreed, by signing up to the 1954 Convention, to facilitate and expedite the naturalisation of stateless persons in the UK. Article 32 of that treaty states:

The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of stateless persons. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.

(emphasis added).

‘Naturalisation’ means, broadly, the process of acquiring a nationality or citizenship. In relation to international legal obligations, this broad meaning should be applied, in order to comply with the object and purpose of the 1954 and 1961 Conventions.

Under the British Nationality Act 1981, there are numerous distinct processes by which British citizenship can be acquired, depending on the context, including (but not limited to):

  • Children born in the UK in certain circumstances are entitled to register as British citizens, for example under Section 1(3) or 1(4).
  • Under Section 3(1), certain children may be registered as British citizens, at the discretion of the Secretary of State.
  • Certain children who would otherwise be born stateless have an entitlement to register as British citizens (Section 36 and Schedule 2).
  • Adults can apply to naturalise by discretion under Section 6(1).

For more information in relation to children’s citizenship, see the Briefing on Fees for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens and Amnesty International UK, revised 8 April 2017).

The UK’s fees for citizenship applications are the highest in the world, according to the Migrant Integration Policy Index (though apparently at least one other country– Tanzania - now has highernaturalisation fees).

In recent years, acquisition of British citizenship has become more and more difficult, as successive Governments have increased fees for citizenship (and immigration) applications exponentially. The fees (currently set out in The Immigration and Nationality (Fees) Regulations 2017, Schedule 8)  have risen to an astronomical £1,202 (plus £80 for the mandatory citizenship ceremony)(for adults to naturalise), and £973 (for children) and £1,083 (plus £80 for citizenship ceremony) (for 18-22 year olds) to register as British citizens. Most adult applicants applying to naturalise under Section 6(1) of the BNA 1981 also have to pay the costs of a language exam (£150 at Trinity College London, one of the approved test centres) and the Life in the UK test (£50) (if not taken at the stage of applying for settled status (ie indefinite leave to remain and permanent residence) – making citizenship even more inaccessible.

Further, in contrast to many countries which charge a nominal or no fee for child applicants, the UK’s fees for children are not far off the fees for adults, nor is there any cap on the fees per family. One of the stateless people I met accurately estimated that for his family of 9, the total fees to acquire British nationality for his family will be nearly £10,000. They are struggling financially, and he thinks they will never be able to afford this.

There is currently no exemption available for British citizenship application fees, for stateless persons or others, even if they cannot afford to pay. The UK’s exorbitantly high fees, particularly combined with measures designed to make life hard for migrants and a paucity of adequate integration services, create barriers beyond those seen in most other countries.

Other countries take a more reasonable approach:

  • In Australia, the citizenship application fee for adult ‘refugees and humanitarian entrants’ or a ‘migrant with permanent residence’ is $285 AUD (£170 GBP), and a concession may be possible in certain circumstances. There is no fee for children under age 16 applying for citizenship with a parent.
  • The fee for the naturalisation application in Ireland is €175 (£154 GBP); and there is a €950 (£837 GBP) charge for the certificate of naturalisation, but it is reduced for minors and some others and waived entirely for refugees and stateless persons.
  • In Germany, the naturalisation fees are €255 (£225 GBP) for adults and €51 (£45 GBP) for dependent minor children being naturalized with a parent; and the fees can be waived in certain cases.
  • In Canada, the citizenship application fee is $630 CAD (£379 GBP) for most adults; but for stateless adults born to a Canadian parent and for children, the fee is only $100 (£60 GBP).
  • US citizenship fees are higher than many countries: the standard naturalisation application fee is $640 (£474 GBP), and there is also a rather steep fee ($1,170 USD/£867 GBP) to obtain a certificate of US citizenship, but there is a possibility of waiving the fees (for the naturalisation application and the certificate) based on low income.

(This is not to say that there are no difficulties in applying for citizenship in other countries – see here, for example, for an analysis of some of the difficulties in Canada).

The UK clearly is not complying with the international obligation to ‘reduce as far as possible the charges and costs’ of acquiring British citizenship.

The costs of acquiring British citizenship are particularly unreasonable given that the bulk of the fees is profit for the Home Office – the actual cost of processing citizenship applications is just £386 (discussed here and in the Briefing on Fees for the Registration of Children as British Citizens; and see Solange Valdez-Symonds’ and Steve Valdez-Symonds’ excellent explanations of barriers to children registering their entitlement to British citizenship – here and here).

Stuart McDonald MP recently asked several Parliamentary Questions relating to statelessness, including relating to the fees for citizenship applications, to which the Immigration Minister responded in a very uninformative (some might say misleading) way. In response to a question about how often the Government waives citizenship application fees for stateless applicants, the Immigration Minister stated that ‘[t]he Home office does not report on or publish this data’. In fact, the Government never waives citizenship application fees.

Asylum Aid / Migrants Resource Centre (where I work), together with the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, University of Liverpool Law Clinic, the European Network on Statelessness, and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion have previously raised concerns about the costs of British citizenship for stateless persons, as well as other difficulties stateless persons face in the UK. We took our concerns to the United Nations in a joint submission to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process through which States critique each other’s human rights records. When the UK was scrutinised at its UPR session in May 2017, Kenya and Hungary recommended that the UK improve its approach to citizenship for stateless persons (and there were additional recommendations relating to stateless persons). The UK Government claims it is committed to the UPR process, but the September 2017 response to UPR recommendations and the related Annex provide no substantive response on the naturalisation issue.

Prime Minister Theresa May has emphasised the importance of citizenship. So why is her Government preventing stateless people from accessing British citizenship by setting the fees at an inaccessible rate and failing to offer any reductions or exemptions? Is citizenship important for everyone, or just those who can afford it?

Society as a whole will benefit from stateless people becoming citizens.

The Migrant Integration Policy Index cites studies indicating that acquiring citizenship can lead to improved employment outcomes and higher rates of political participation. Having citizenship means that people do not have the difficulties of constantly trying to prove who they are. They will be eligible to participate fully in civic life, including by voting and serving in professions that require citizenship. They may be more likely to overcome the trauma of their past lives. They may – for the first time ever – be able to lead normal lives without the heavy burden of not belonging anywhere in the world. They will be better placed to learn and grow and give back to society in myriad ways.

This problem can be fixed.

There is a supremely easy solution for this problem. The Home Secretary has the power to fix this by a simple change to the Fee Regulations.

A reasonable approach would be to:

  • Remove the profit-making element of the fee for all stateless persons applying for British citizenship;
  • Significantly reduce or eliminate the fee for children, and/or introduce a reasonable maximum fee per family; and
  • Waive citizenship application and other costs (eg citizenship ceremony fee, English language exam fee, and Life in the UK test fee) entirely for stateless applicants who cannot afford to pay these fees.

The right to nationality is a fundamental human right. It should not be denied by barriers such as high fees which make acquisition of nationality a distant dream for those without the means to pay for it (For background on the situation of stateless persons in the UK, see Asylum Aid’s 2016 Policy Briefing: The UK’s Approach to Statelessness).

** This blog was also posted on the Freemovement website, which provides updates, commentary and advice on immigration and asylum law in the UK.

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