Could you be deprived of your British citizenship?

This is a question that recently came to the fore in the media with the case of Shamima Begum, the teenager from London who went to join Islamic State (deemed to be a terrorist organisation) in Syria. She is – or rather was – a British citizen and the Home Secretary has stripped her of her British citizenship. Or at any rate he thinks he has but she is going to appeal.

Whatever the facts of this particular case certainly the Home Secretary/Home Office does in some circumstances have legal powers to strip people of British citizenship. The Home Office sometimes asserts that British citizenship is a privilege, not a right. We never quite managed to understand what it meant by this, and this subject rather reminds us of the dictum of King Charles I to the effect that, as monarchs have given Parliament power, they can take it away again if they want to (but in his case he did not succeed).

But these obscure sentiments of the Home Office reflect the vague historical truism that the acquisition of British citizenship always had a slightly mysterious character. Unlike other types of immigration status it necessarily encapsulates concepts of “loyalty”, and perhaps this is the reason.

Anyway, the powers of the Home Secretary to strip a British citizen of their British citizenship nowadays come in the British Nationality Act 1981 – and which have been amended now and again over the last few years to make them tougher.

The relevant legislation has been much analysed recently in the media, with varying degrees of accuracy.

The Act tells us, in a slightly labyrinthine fashion, that the Secretary of State can only deprive someone who is deemed to be a Bad Person of their British citizenship if it would not make them stateless unless they have obtained it by naturalisation and there are reasonable grounds for believing that the person is entitled to another nationality.

If you think about this it means that such a person who was born British but who holds dual nationality could be so deprived. It also means that such a person who obtained British citizenship by naturalisation but who holds dual nationality could be so deprived. It also means that such a person who obtained British citizenship by naturalisation and who is reasonably believed to be entitled to another nationality could be so deprived.

But what it does not mean – if you read the law straight – is that such a person born British and who holds no other national can be do deprived.

As distinguished barrister David Anderson QC, who previously served as a reviewer of terrorism legislation, tells us straight:

“Those born as British citizens who are not dual nationals cannot be stripped of their citizenship in any circumstances.”

The facts about Shamima Begum are not entirely clear, and here we get into complexities. She may well have been born a British citizen but it has been suggested that she might hold Bangladeshi nationality through her mother, or maybe not.

There is an important legal distinction here between being entitled to a nationality and actually holding such a nationality. It is generally the case that non-possession of a passport does not show non-possession of a nationality, and in some instances a person does not acquire a nationality unless they apply for it, even if they are clearly entitled to it. It follows from this that somebody could be entitled to a nationality but has not applied for it and is therefore not a dual national.

In any event, whether she does hold it or not is a matter of Bangladeshi law, not British law. As is often the case with nationality issues, there is an interaction between two legal systems. These issues will no doubt be tested before the Special Immigration Appeals Committee (SIAC), to whom she is appealing, and which deals with terrorism-related cases such as this, and we will see what comes of it.

One other thing is important to mention. As with other immigration statuses, the Home Secretary can revoke a person’s British citizenship if it was acquired through naturalisation and if fraud or deception was deemed to be employed. This is a quite different subject from issues about terrorism and serious criminality.

This is quite a wide-ranging power, because deception may be alleged at any stage along the route: eg in acquiring a visa or acquiring settlement.

If you are affected by any such issues you are strongly advised to consult a good lawyer.

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