In the last few days, there’s a sense of palpable anxiety among my friends from ethnic minority and Muslim backgrounds in response to the revelations about Priti Patel’s plans to pass legislation allowing her to revoke British citizenship without notice. “We’re worried,” they tell me; “This will have a devastating impact,” another says.
Not worrying is a luxury, because it’s non-white citizens and Muslims, particularly, who will be worst affected by the home secretary’s latest draconian policy — one the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has called a “profoundly racist law.”
Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which was quietly added on ahead of its reading in the House of Commons this week, would exempt the government from having to inform someone when depriving them of their citizenship if it is not “reasonably practicable” to do so, or in the interests of national security, diplomatic relations, or perceived to be in another kind of “public interest.”
This is only one feature of a vicious bill that also aims to rule as inadmissible asylum claims made by undocumented people, criminalize them and anyone taking part in refugee rescue missions in the English Channel, and give Border Force officials immunity if people drown during their “pushback” operations. And despite the deaths of twenty-seven people in the Channel just last week — the highest single death toll in the Channel since the International Organization for Migration started collecting data — the government is ploughing ahead.
Since 2006, the government has had the power to strip British citizenship from dual nationals under measures introduced by the Tony Blair administration in the wake of the 2005 London bombings. In 2014, these powers were extended to those whose citizenship is British-only, but who are foreign-born and likely to be eligible for another citizenship.
This means that overwhelmingly those targeted are minorities and those of migrant heritage, and, as Frances Webber of the IRR has told the Guardian, Muslims. Two in every five people from non-white ethnic minorities (41 percent) are likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship without notice, compared with just one in twenty people categorized as white (5 percent). Almost half of all Asian British people in England and Wales are likely to be eligible (50 percent), along with two in five black Britons (39 percent).
In fact, according to analysis from the New Statesman, nearly 6 million people in total in England and Wales could become eligible to be stripped of their British citizenship with no warning. The government has said those whose citizenship is stripped will be able to appeal, but how are you meant to appeal a decision you know nothing about?
There will be those who claim that this shouldn’t worry us — that we’re just scaremongering, and that citizenship deprivation is reserved only for the most “serious” crimes. “Just be a good immigrant, and you’ll have no trouble,” they say. I’ve been repeatedly assured that I have nothing to fear.
But it’s not true that deprivation is only reserved for those who pose a threat of very high harm. To strip a dual national of their citizenship without notice, the home secretary merely has to believe that doing so is “conducive to the public good” — a broad term that could mean anything our increasingly right-wing government wants it to. This is a government that wants to make it possible to jail people for as much as fifty-one weeks for protesting, after all.
By further institutionalizing a racialized two-tier system of British citizenship, in which minorities and those of migrant heritage are judged by a different yardstick and face harsher consequences for their actions, the very social cohesion that politicians claim to value is undermined.
It sends a clear signal to millions — that, in the words of author Kamila Shamsie, there are those of us who are considered “British British,” and those who are British until the home secretary decides otherwise. The default position is that we must be twice as good, and that the consequences of anything Patel might deem a misstep for people like me are much harsher simply because our parents were not born here.
Perhaps most gallingly, it seems that the government has learned nothing from the Windrush scandal, which saw thousands wrongly detained and threatened with deportation by our racist Home Office, and at least eighty-three people actually wrongly deported. Only 864 of the 15,000 eligible for government compensation as a result of the scandal have received it so far, but now the government is doubling down on new measures to entrench similar abuses. The reality is that our government sees our existence as a threat, and something that should and can be held against us.
Growing up in Luton, it wasn’t unusual to hear shouts of “Go back to where you came from!” from far-right thugs. Patel has taken that rhetoric and given it the full force of the state. We must all oppose this latest assault: otherwise the question of “Where are you really from?” that so often follows people of color — a question that presumes we can never be fully, properly British — will become engrained as official government policy.