How the UK Government is Turning Citizenship from a Human Right to a Privilege

What began as Theresa May’s crusade against the idea of citizenship being a fundamental human right as defined by International Law, has turned into an Establishment’s enforcement of it being a privilege. And that privilege has had racial implications.

What began as Theresa May’s crusade against the idea of citizenship being a fundamental human right as defined by International Law, has turned into an Establishment’s enforcement of it being a privilege. And that privilege has had racial implications.

In one of her first speeches as Home Secretary at the Conservative party conference, Theresa May pitched her ideas of what reforms she would like to see with her leadership. The concept that “citizenship is a privilege” and that “some people are more equal than others” was high on the table. She also announced that “to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of no where”, which went on to be proven in the many years as Home Secretary and later on as Prime Minister by leaving scores of British citizens stateless with no access to their civil or human rights.

It wasn’t much later until the policy of what she coined the “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants back in 2013 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came into being. The policy introduced several measures including forcing banks, the NHS, charities and landlords to check the immigration status of applicants, as well as the controversial “deport first, appeal later” policy reducing the grounds of appeal from 17 to 4.

The policy also introduced “Operation Vaken”, a strategy to create fear within people to self-deport themselves via roaming “Go Home” Vans in BME neighbourhoods. The Home Office also bought advert space in newspapers, shops, charities and faith centres, again focused in BME neighbourhoods.

The problem with all of this is that it gave a legal framework for the government to go after, harass, and attempt to enforce deportation on anyone they thought they could, purely on the basis they can argue they shouldn’t be in the country. The criteria was loose enough for it to be self-defined by the minister of the day and there was no real legal framework that held the government to account or restricted its own power.

This was a power grab, and as usual, it would be the lives of UK’s minorities that would pay the price.

Even highly skilled workers who already would have been given proper immigration status were targeted. Teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and IT professional were challenged on their status. These were people who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and have children already growing up in the UK. Many were given only 14 days to leave and unable to apply for a visa on their return. Their own only choice was to challenge this legally…if they could afford it.

The government was effectively deporting them for no reason, except they were not deemed “British”. Out of the 300 cases of highly skilled workers, the Home Office deported at least 87 of them. 87 lives and families ruined simply because they didn’t have the proper paper work but legally could apply for British citizenship. Their work and contribution had no meaning. May’s Home Office regarded them simply not equal enough.

In addition, the Home Office lost 75% of its cases against applicants for refugee status in courts. This only shows how ideologically driven this policy was. There was no regard whatsoever for the safety of even those fleeing persecution. In some cases, UK courts issued an order to block deportation, however the government deported them anyway. Something to only be repeated with the Windrush Scandal.

The immigration lawyer and campaigner Colin Yeo described the impact of the policy as: “We now effectively have in-country immigration controls, carried out by private citizens on each other…it’s done through fear of penalties, or it can be done through bureaucracy, the system of checks in healthcare or education which are so onerous.

“Black and ethnic minority people are disproportionally affected too – a landlord will ask for your papers if you look or sound foreign. We know this is happening in practice.”

It wasn’t just through PREVENT where ordinary people were being made to spy on and turn each other in. It was through immigration laws too.

The impact on society was profound. Many social welfare charities simply stopped sharing information with the police out of fear that reporting may lead to unlawful deportation as opposed to standard prosecution, leading to an under-reporting of crime.

Charities, campaigners, and landlords complained that the hostile wrongfully targeted tenants based on race or nationality, regardless of whether they had British citizenship or not. It also encourages racist behaviour among landlords.

Medical professionals stated that the hostile environment policy wrongly denied people urgent care simply because they were to fearful to seek help.

It forced families to urgently seek legal solutions and Leave To Remain, costing them thousands of pounds in such a short space of time. In many cases, some simply didn’t have the financial means – which is why they were the perfect target for this government.

The Windrush Scandal

It was this hostile environment that laid the ground work for what we now call the Windrush Scandal. Whilst the hostile environment targeted people who had no history of, but had a right to apply for, British citizenship, it set a precedent to escalate on those who had British citizenship but could not prove that they had it.

The Windrush generation, people who were invited from the Caribbean to help re-build Britain in the 1950s, settled and called the UK their home. Their children were born here and grew up here. They were genuine UK citizens – except they did not have documentation.

The government started to deport these individuals quickly, effectively stopping them from appealing the decision with its “deport first, appeal later” policy already normalised many years before.

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After the government apologised for the early scandal of deporting Black British citizens for no reason except that they are black, now with a Boris Johnson government, it is effectively open season on the Windrush.

Enter Islamophobia

We saw a similar trend when it came to the government’s counter-extremism strategy too.

Perhaps the most earliest and well known case was that of Mahdi Hashi.

Mahdi was granted British citizenship at the age of 14 after his family fled the civil war in Somalia. After finishing his GCSEs, he left for Egypt to study Arabic where he was detained and accused of associating with “Muslim extremists”, something Hashi has always denied. He was subsequently deported from Somalia to the UK and from then, Hashi claimed to be repeatedly harassed by an informant for M15 for three years.

Hashi eventually went back to Somalia to look after his 90-year-old grandmother, but his decision to move would undoubtedly be motivated by the harassment he faced from intelligence services.

Eventually his citizenship was stripped overseas on the pretexts of “extremist activities”, despite the fact there was never ever any evidence put against him, enacting the infamous “deport now, appeal later” policy. He is currently in jail in New York facing charges on extremism.

But Hashi would not be the first or the last Muslim accused of extremism to have their citizenship revoked. There have been many others.

The most recent case has been Shamima Begum. A person who went to join ISIS as a teenager, but beyond that, has shown no capacity of violence and has publicly expressed regret and remorse for her decision.

She has denied grounds for appeal against the decision to strip her citizenship simply because there is no longer any legal framework that enables her to do so.

A previous Act of Parliament on counter-terrorism was passed that allowed the current Minister of State to strip a person’s citizenship on counter-terrorism grounds, but with no need to provide evidence and judicial review. In other words, whatever the minister decides is final. There is no way back otherwise.

All of this has a common theme. What began as Theresa May’s crusade against the idea of citizenship being a fundamental human right as defined by International Law, has turned into an Establishment’s enforcement of it being a privilege. And that privilege has had racial implications.

It is beyond doubt that those who have been targeted and scapegoated have been BME communities who are most vulnerable, and this is why there is real fear that the same practice will eventually be used upon EU citizens who decide to stay in the UK after Brexit.

What remains stark is how Muslims have reacted to the stories of Shamima Begum and others; almost with the same fever of White nationalists – denouncing them for making their mistakes and justifying the government’s moves on the basis of perceived threat alone. Easily buying into the xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric that is working against them too.

However, I can understand why they are insistent on blaming the individual, because the alternative is to point the blame at the system and those who run it. That inherently means they must consider, sometime down the line, they may be impacted. The thought of simply being uprooted from your home, family, and life is terrifying enough, never mind having little grounds to appeal the decision or be left with no access to human rights.

It must be equally terrifying for the Windrush generation and others who are facing the now real circumstance of being deported from the UK for no fault of their own except being easy targets for the government.

But this has been happening for over a decade now. UK citizenship is increasingly becoming a privilege decided by the government of the day, not a fundamental right decided by the law of the land. That puts all of us at risk. Afterall, if a government can strip you of your citizenship for being the “wrong” type of citizen, then would you want to hold them to account at all?

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