"Everything is stuck”: Left in limbo and stateless as a British Overseas Citizen

Liew Teh
/ 7 mins read

I arrived in the UK in 2001 at the age of twenty from Malaysia, with feelings of excitement as I embarked on an Engineering Degree at the University of Wolverhampton.

Liew Teh
Liew Teh

I went on to complete a master’s degree in Advanced Technology Management and became a member of the Institution of Engineering Technology and Institution of Mechanical Engineering. My positive experience of the UK inspired me to stay here, living and working to pursue my chartered engineer's training. I have, however, ended up experiencing life in limbo as a stateless British Overseas Citizen, trying to resolve my status and my right to work.

The beginning of a nightmare

In 2004, by chance, I saw a notice outside a legal firm advertising that Malaysians who were born in Penang or Malacca before 1983 and whose fathers were born in Penang or Malacca before Malaysian independence in 1957, were eligible for British citizenship or right of residence in the UK by virtue of claiming British Overseas Citizen status (BOC). In 2005, I decided to visit a solicitors’ firm for a consultation about BOC status. They advised that they could make an application for a BOC passport given my connection with Penang and I was assured that, based on the firm’s experience at the time, after getting a BOC passport I would be granted leave to remain and/or be given British Citizenship within nine to twelve months by virtue of Section 4B of the British Nationality Act 1981 (BNA 1981).

A year later, I was advised that the Home Office would not consider my application without written confirmation by the Malaysian Government that I was no longer a Malaysian citizen, and so I renounced my Malaysian citizenship, trusting the legal advice that I had been given. The nightmare began after reading the 2009 Asylum and Immigration Tribunal's determination. I was shocked to discover that the legal advice I had been given was misleading and that renouncing my Malaysian citizenship violated the Section 4B rules. In fact, since 4th July 2002 BOCs will not be eligible for British citizenship if they renounce, voluntarily relinquish or lose their Malaysian citizenship. By then, I was stuck, as I was no longer a Malaysian citizen and my British Overseas Citizen status does not allow me to work or permanently reside in the UK.

A ten-year struggle

Since 2009, I have written to the UK and Malaysian Authorities, and sought new solicitors, as well as support from UNHCR and a number of different charities. Despite writing to the Malaysian Federal Government several times, their only reply in 2009 confirmed that I am no longer a Malaysian citizen. In 2012, I visited the Malaysian High Commission to try to apply for settlement back to Malaysia. It was only last year – seven years later - that the High Commission confirmed to me in writing that anyone who had renounced their Malaysian citizenship after 4th July 2002 would not qualify for a Residence Pass. Even if I had been eligible, my application would not necessarily have been approved, and so I would not have been guaranteed to be able to return to Malaysia. A Residence Pass is also not a form of permanent residence. I have written to my local MP in the UK, who has taken some action to help and now insists they have done what they can, but that there is nothing further they can do to support my case.

British Overseas Citizens

Anyone who was a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies on 31 December 1982 and did not become either a British citizen or a British overseas territories citizen on 1 January 1983, became a British overseas citizen on 1 January 1983. Stateless people who meet certain criteria may also be eligible to register as British overseas citizens. Although we are British Nationals, and are able to hold a British passport and get consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts, BOCs are granted limited rights, as we are not automatically granted the right to live or work in the UK and are still subject to immigration controls.

UNHCR and Asylum Aid’s 2011 “Mapping Statelessness in the UK” report describes the unique situation of BOCs from Malaysia in the UK, a number of whom are stuck in uncertain situations similar to mine. It is thought that a number of BOCs from Malaysia have found themselves in limbo, having renounced their Malaysian citizenship as a result of incorrect legal advice, wrongly informing them that they would then be eligible to register under Section 4B BNA 1981. They have since been unable to return to Malaysia or reacquire Malaysian nationality. 

In 2018, the High Court made a decision on my case. They found that I am stateless but that, in order to be granted permission to stay in the UK as a stateless person, I would need to provide further evidence that I am not ‘admissible’ to Malaysia with a Residence Pass. In my view, it is clear that I am not admissible to Malaysia for the purposes of permanent residence, and I shared all evidence of my correspondence with the Malaysian authorities, and the fact that they did not respond to my requests, with my solicitor at the time.

The Home Office has responded to the Law Commission's “The simplifying of Immigration Rules” report with an announcement that by January 2021, there will be changes to the existing Immigration Rules. One of the changes is on statelessness, referring to ‘a status leading to permanent residence’. However, there is no clear definition of what this means. Instead of simplifying the Immigration Rules, I believe this will reduce certainty and the level of protection for stateless migrants. UNHCR, and Liverpool Law Clinic as a stakeholder in the Home Office policy group on statelessness, have now raised the concern to the Home Office and will be highlighting the potential risks presented for stateless people if these changes are passed through. 

Applying for statelessness status

Last year, I submitted a new application to stay in the UK as a stateless person. I did this on my own, as I cannot afford a solicitor. The 3 following key areas govern my application under Immigration Rules, policy and guidance: whether I am a stateless person; whether I am admissible back to Malaysia for the purposes of permanent residence; and whether I have deliberately renounced my Malaysian citizenship. In 2012, the Home Office acknowledged that former Malaysian citizens have renounced their Malaysian citizenship in error, not deliberately, and has been aware since 2014 that I cannot return to Malaysia for the purposes of permanent residence. In an email correspondence last year, the Home Office stated that “to qualify for stateless leave in the UK, an applicant must demonstrate that they are stateless and that they will not be admitted to another country for the purposes of permanent residence there”. 


The UK government has always maintained that the country has a critical shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths skills. I have a bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a master’s degree in Science. I have no criminal record and have never claimed any benefits. I have tried to get permission to return to Malaysia, but there is no legal route eligible for me to apply to return to Malaysia for the purposes of permanent residence nor re-acquire my Malaysian citizenship with immediate effect. I strongly believe that I meet all the requirements of the UK’s immigration rules and guidance on statelessness. I don't understand why the Home Office has left me stateless for many years when they are aware that I cannot be readmitted to Malaysia for the purposes of permanent residence and I only renounced my Malaysian citizenship on the basis of legal advice, fully expecting that this would mean I would be eligible to stay lawfully in the UK under Section 4B BNA 1981. If I had known the consequences at the time, I would not even have applied for a BOC passport. I have even made a complaint against my former solicitor to the Legal Complaints Service who found that the solicitor failed to advise me of the change in immigration law and the risks involved in my initial application in 2005. I never would have chosen to live in limbo, neither in the UK nor in Malaysia.

Liew Teh
Liew Teh

Despite my predicament, I continue to contribute and integrate into British society by volunteering with Oxfam’s Wellington shop, Amnesty International Telford Group, and the Wolverhampton Refugee and Migrant Centre. I have also joined badminton, cycling, and Morris Dancing Groups. I am grateful to my friends who have supported me throughout. I want to take back control of my life, be able to live with dignity, and contribute to the UK. Please help me end this nightmare by signing my petition calling on the Home Office to honour and abide by their Immigration Rules and Policy and guidance on statelessness, and grant me leave to remain as a stateless person.

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