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1 December 2021

Exclusive: British citizenship of six million people could be jeopardised by Home Office plans

Two in five people in England and Wales from an ethnic minority background could become eligible to be deprived of their citizen status without warning.

By Ben van der Merwe

Nearly six million people in England and Wales could become eligible to be stripped of their British citizenship without warning, under new plans proposed by the government.

New Statesman analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics also finds that two in every five people from non-white ethnic minorities (41 per cent) are likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship, compared with just one in 20 people categorised as white (5 per cent).

Since 2006, the Home Secretary has had the power to strip dual nationals of their British citizenship if doing so is deemed to be "conducive to the public good".

In 2014, these powers were extended to foreign-born British citizens without dual nationality, who can be made stateless so long as the government believes they are eligible for foreign citizenship and that their actions and they have conducted themselves "in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom, any of the Islands, or any British overseas territory."

The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill could extend these powers further still. Clause nine of the draft bill states that the government does not need to notify those deprived of their citizenship if it does not have their contact details, or if it is “for any other reason” not “reasonably practicable” to do so. It also states that notice should not be given if it is “in the public interest” not to do so.

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Campaigners say these new powers would make it harder for those who had been deprived of citizenship from appealing against the Home Office’s decision. The Home Office insists that those deprived of citizenship still possess the right to appeal.

A Home Office spokesperson said:

“The premise of this article is fundamentally misleading.

“Removing British citizenship has been possible for over a century and is always a last resort against the most dangerous people to protect our national security and public safety. It is rare, cannot leave anyone stateless and always comes with a right to appeal.

“This change is simply about the process of notification and recognises that in exceptional circumstances, such as when someone is in a war zone, or informing them would reveal sensitive intelligence sources, it may not be possible to do this.”

A New Statesman analysis of data from the 2011 census has found 5,604,000 people in England and Wales that are likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship, including an estimated 408,000 people born in the UK.

The figure could be as high as 5,994,000, depending on the nationality of the individuals’ parents.

In 2019, the former Islamic State supporter Shamima Begum, who was born in London as a British citizen, was stripped of her UK citizenship. Although Begum did not possess a foreign passport, the home secretary at the time argued that she would not be rendered stateless, because Bangladesh (where her parents were born) considers anyone born to a Bangladeshi parent to be a citizen from birth until the age of 21. In February 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Home Office's decision to bar Begum from returning to the UK to appeal her loss of citizenship.

The largest group of people eligible for deprivation of citizenship are those born in India. An estimated 431,000 residents of England and Wales were born in India at a time when the country offered citizenship to anyone born there. A further 204,000 are likely to be eligible if they were born with at least one parent who was an Indian citizen at the time.

Pakistan offers citizenship to anyone born in the country after 1951. More than 417,000 residents of England and Wales are likely to meet this criterion, with another 65,000 likely to be eligible if they were born to at least one Pakistani parent.

Combining these estimates with census data on ethnicity by country of birth, the New Statesman estimates that non-white ethnic minority residents are eight times more likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship than white residents of all backgrounds.

Almost half of all Asian British people in England and Wales are likely to be eligible (50 per cent), along with two in five black Britons (39 per cent).

“It’s a profoundly racist law,” Frances Webber, vice-chair of the Institute for Race Relations, told the New Statesman

“If you’re born here and you don’t have any foreign citizenship, you can do whatever you like. You might go to prison, but you will always have your citizenship. 

“If you don’t have citizenship, what other rights do you have? As Hannah Arendt said, citizenship is the very right to have rights.”

Measures introduced in 2006 mean that any dual national can be deprived of their UK citizenship if the home secretary believes this would be “conducive to the public good”. 

Since 2014, the measures have also applied to naturalised UK citizens who the home secretary “has reasonable grounds to believe” are eligible for foreign citizenship, even if they do not currently possess dual nationality.

Between 2006 and 2017, Home Office figures show, 199 people were stripped of their citizenship, with 104 cases in 2017 alone.

Our analysis

Using data from the 2011 census, every person in England and Wales born in one of 33 different countries was assigned a likelihood of being eligible for citizenship of their heritage country through either descent or birth, based on the stringency of requirements that apply to their age cohort.

The results of the 2021 census are yet to be released, and data for Scotland and Northern Ireland was unavailable.

The main estimates assume that one parent was a citizen of the birth country at the time of birth, while upper estimates assume both parents (or the parent specified by the relevant nationality laws) were citizens.

The final estimate also includes 232,000 UK-born dual nationals and 176,000 UK-born people of Bangladeshi descent who are under the age of 21. This latter group are likely to be considered Bangladeshi citizens as long as one of their parents was a Bangladeshi citizen at the time of their birth. As such, these figures are included only in the middle and upper estimates.

The data does not account for other automatic birthright citizenships granted to people born in the UK, such as those born to French, German or Italian parents. Together with the fact that the data is for 2011 and includes only a subset of countries, this means the six million figure is likely to be an underestimate.

For some countries, however, the number may be an overestimate. The ONS has not published data on the share of people born in particular countries who are British citizens, so these estimates are likely to include some people who are resident in England and Wales but not UK citizens. These people could also be deported, but they would not need to have their British citizenship revoked.

The limitations of the data also mean that the final estimate assumes there is no overlap between UK-born dual nationals and UK-born people eligible for Bangladeshi citizenship. In other words, anyone who is UK-born, of Bangladeshi descent, aged under 21 and a dual national is counted twice.

Estimates for eligibility by ethnicity are based on the share of residents in England and Wales born in each country, or the relevant region where country-specific data was not available, who self-identified as “white”, “Asian”, “black”, “mixed” or “other” in the 2011 census. For UK-born dual nationals, estimates were based on the ethnicity figures for all dual nationals in England and Wales, regardless of country of birth.

Update 2/12/21

This article has been amended to clarify the Supreme Court did not rule in favour of the decision to deprive Shamima Begum of her citizenship, but rather ruled in favour of the Home Secretary's decision to bar her from returning to the UK for her appeal. The Home Secretary did not acquire the power to deprive dual citizens of their British citizenship in 2006, which was rather when the requirements for deprivation were significantly loosened.

This article was updated after publication with a response from the Home Office.

[See also: Our Shamima Begum obsession]

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