5 Sep 2014

The ‘stateless’: what happens if you take away citizenship?

Taking away extremists’ British citizenship is one measure the government proposed to combat terrorism, much to the concern of lawyers and humanitarian groups. But why does it want to?

Islamic State (IS) forced itself onto the world stage again earlier this week, releasing another video of another murder of an American journalist. This time, it also threatened to kill a British aid worker unless US air strikes against the militant group were stopped.

Days before the video was released, David Cameron set out a range of measures aimed at tackling the raised terror threat to Britain, and specifically, the estimated 500 British nationals believed to be fighting with IS across Syria and Iraq.

These included giving police stronger powers to seize passports at borders, and beefing up TPims, which are used against suspected terrorists residing in Britain.

The prime minister stopped short of announcing his intention to try to revoke citizenship from British-born nationals – something that was widely trailed beforehand – but he said the government was in discussions about how to stop British-born nationals from returning to the UK. In principle, what is needed is a “targeted, discretionary power to allow us to exclude British nationals from the UK,” he said.

There are much stronger political costs to infringing the rights of British citizens in the name of countering terrorism than non-citizens. Ben Ward, Human Rights Watch

Britain is not alone in entering this debate. IS has attracted individuals from across the western world, including Belgium, Denmark, Norway and France, as well as Britain and the US, and many of these countries have discussed the possibility of removing their citizenship.

Read more on FactCheck: can’t we already seize jihadis’ passports?

The law

Leaving aside British-born nationals, it is already technically legal in some circumstances to revoke citizenship from individuals with dual nationality. And as of July this year, those of “naturalised” citizenship (individuals born abroad, but who later become British) can also be legally stripped of their British citizenship, under a clause in the very recent immigration act 2014 which was voted through by the House of Lords in May.

This is the case, “even if this would leave them stateless”, says the Home Office briefing:

But even if it is technically sound under British law, as of a very recent law change, the consequences of doing so are massive – from a legal, humanitarian, and political point of view.

This is especially the case for naturalised Brits who are not in the UK and would effectively be left stateless. The Commons joint committee on human rights (JCHR) said in the Home Office’s own 25-page note on the issue, that it would be “very concerned” if this was the government’s main or sole purpose, as it would be “a very great risk of breaching the UK’s international obligations to the State who admitted the British citizen to its territory.

“We recommend that the Bill be amended to make it a precondition of the making of an order by the secretary of state that, in the circumstances of the particular case, the deprivation is compatible with the UK’s obligations under international law.”

The human cost

This is because someone stripped of nationality while overseas “is in trouble” because that person “no longer has a state to protect them”, Ben Ward, Human Rights Watch deputy director, Europe and Central Asia, told Channel 4 News.

“There are much stronger political costs to infringing the rights of British citizens in the name of countering terrorism than non-citizens, even though, with exception of immigration measures, the rights of those two groups are the same.”

The threat of air strikes against IS puts this concern into sharp focus: two days after the murder of Steven Sotloff was posted online, the prime minister said he would not rule out attacks, while the US reportedly launched its first targeted attack on one of IS’s leaders, striking him dead.

There has already been an increase in the use of “deprivation” powers, which the Home Office says is down to British citizens travelling to Syria. Last year, an investigation from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism based on FoI requests shed some light on the growing number of Britons (with dual nationality) who had their citizenship revoked by the coalition while they were outside Britain.

Since 2006, 27 people lost their citizenship on grounds of national security grounds, 24 of these since the coalition government came into power in 2010. The bureau said “what has become of many of these individuals is unknown”, but noted two men who had their citizenship removed, Bilal al-Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, were later killed in separate drone strikes in Somalia.

What about the courts?

One major legal issue with revoking citizenship while overseas, is that it does not allow for someone to be convicted under the judicial process – something the Conservative MP and former attorney general Dominic Grieve has already said.

This has had a disastrous impact in Guantanamo, for example, in the case of Murat Kurnaz, who was held for five years but was later found to be innocent.

“It’s going to be done without judicial determination on whether person has engaged in criminal activity,” Phillipe Sands QC told Channel 4 News. “It might just further enrage, and deprive the UK of the possibility of exercising criminal jurisdiction over those individuals… There’s a distinction between what’s allowed in law, and what’s sensible in policy terms.”

And aside from all the legal and humanitarian wrangling, would revoking citizenship, and finding some way to stop British nationals from coming back, actually work in combating terrorism? Human rights group Liberty, for one, is sceptical.

“It looks like what they’re aiming to do is have some temporary measure to stop British nationals from returning to the UK,” Policy Officer Rachel Robinson told Channel 4 News. “Essentially what the government is seeking to do, is make the problem some else’s, and not tackle the issue themselves, which is not only deeply irresponsible but liable to create new global dangers.”

Human rights lawyer Louise Christian agreed, and called it a “knee-jerk” reaction from the government. She also told Channel 4 News that the move would put Britain in dubious company: “For the British government to consider joining countries which refuse to accept nationals back again – usually these countries don’t have great human rights records.

She added: “To deny them (suspected extremists) entry to their own country is a step too far, and there would be consequences if the whole world starting acting like that.”