Show caption ‘Citizenship-stripping powers may feel abstract, but the government’s unprecedented use of them is already having a terrible impact on British families.’ Photograph: Uk Parliament/JESSICA TAYLOR HANDOUT/EPA Opinion Behold the new ‘hostile environment’ – with the power to rob millions of British citizenship Sayeeda Warsi The government promised to learn from Windrush, but citizens trafficked to Syria by Islamic State have also been abandoned Tue 15 Feb 2022 11.19 GMT Share on Facebook
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The government’s proposed new powers to strip people of their citizenship without notice rang alarm bells in communities across Britain. Despite being the first Muslim woman in our country’s history to serve in the cabinet, my family and I could be deprived of our citizenship without being told about it, and cast out of our home country if the Home Office believed this would be conducive to the public good. Two in five people from ethnic minority backgrounds could be at risk.
Successive British governments have torn down the basic belief that all British citizens in this country are and should be equal. The consequences of this government’s unprecedentedly broad use of citizenship-stripping powers have become even more clear to me after hearing directly from the families of British citizens detained in north-east Syria.
Last week, the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on trafficked Britons in Syria, of which I’m a vice-chair, published the findings of its inquiry into the grooming and trafficking of British nationals by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. What we found is devastating. Not only did UK authorities fail to protect vulnerable women and girls from being trafficked by IS, but the government has essentially punished some of those women for the crimes committed by their traffickers by stripping them of their citizenship.
As far as we know, the government made no attempt to assess how the women reached Syria. It simply sent a letter (or filed a letter in a Home Office drawer) stating that they travelled to IS-held territory “of [their] own volition” and had forfeited their right to British citizenship as a result.
We heard family members describe the horrific abuse and enslavement their loved ones endured under IS, and their feelings of abandonment and betrayal by the authorities they looked to for support.
Many were interrogated and treated like criminals after they reported their loved ones missing. One family was raided by the police after going to them for help. Authorities stopped answering their calls. At the most difficult time in their lives, they had nowhere to turn.
Although British women have managed to escape IS territory, they and their children have been abandoned by the government in detention camps in north-east Syria where their lives are in jeopardy. In one detention camp last year at least 163 people died, including 62 children.
Instead of repatriating these families – as many of our European allies and the US have done with their nationals – the government has washed its hands of them, by unilaterally stating that these women, born and raised in Britain, are no longer British.
In addition to the life-threatening consequences for these women and children and the severe emotional toll on their families, these discriminatory citizenship-stripping policies are eroding many people’s sense of belonging within the UK, especially in the Muslim community.
This sense of a new “hostile environment” will only be exacerbated by clause 9 of the nationality and borders bill, which would introduce the power to deprive millions of Britons of citizenship without notice.
This would effectively eviscerate the right of appeal. You don’t stand much chance of challenging the deprivation of your citizenship if you don’t know it’s been taken away in the first place. And it would further the appalling situation in which we find ourselves now in Britain that seeks to sentence a predominantly minority black and brown community differently from the majority white community.
When my grandfathers fought for the British Indian army, they did so as British citizens. When the Windrush generation answered the call to rebuild Britain after the second world war, they did so as citizens. When south Asian people took up gruelling jobs in the mills and foundries of Yorkshire, as my family did, they did so as citizens, as equal members of our society, in the continuation of a bond that had started decades earlier.
Citizenship-stripping powers may feel abstract, but the government’s unprecedented use of them is already having a terrible impact on British families, including children and trafficking victims, as the APPG’s report makes clear. Their abandonment is a blot on our nation’s conscience and should serve as a warning about the potential consequences of further expansion of this vast, unaccountable executive power.
In the wake of the Windrush scandal, the government promised to learn from the failures that led to British citizens being unfairly cast out from their homeland. It must end the dangerous misuse of citizenship-stripping powers, or it is doomed to repeat those failures.
Lady Warsi is a former chairman of the Conservative party and vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficked Britons in Syria