Why We Need to Fight the Racist Nationality and Borders Bill

By giving the government powers to strip six million people of their citizenship without notice, the Nationality and Borders Bill formalises second class status – and expands the Hostile Environment’s threat to marginalised communities across Britain.

Home Secretary Priti Patel delivers her keynote speech on day three of the 2021 Conservative Party Conference. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

The controversial Nationalities and Borders Bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords, having passed in the Commons with a majority of sixty-seven. On 27 January, the committee examining it will report back to the Lords, after which it will go on to a third reading, and then become law.

Not content with the Home Office’s historical belligerence, Home Secretary Priti Patel has proven herself intent on increasing the aggression with which Britain polices its borders. Her tenure has so far seen asylum seekers housed in prison-style barracks and plans made to brutally ‘push back’ boats attempting to cross the Channel from France. When she speaks of the need for a ‘swift and efficient’ shake-up of the rules concerning asylum seekers and deportations, we can assume they are thinly-veiled euphemisms for inhumane and barbarous treatment. A closer inspection of this bill is testament to that.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, the government’s vaunted cornerstone of its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, aims to prevent ‘illegal’ entry into the UK by demanding people only enter if they get a place on an official resettlement scheme. This change is being framed as an attempt to protect those who are ‘in genuine need’, but in reality it abandons asylum seekers who enter the country through ‘irregular’ routes to criminalisation and likely removal—despite the obvious point that when fleeing war and catastrophe, you take any route you can.

Just last month, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab refused to deny that ministers were working on a deal to allow them to put people who arrived in the country from the Channel onto boats to Albania. Should the proposals pass, coming to the UK without permission will become a criminal offence punishable by up to four years’ imprisonment. The original draft of the bill even left open the possibility that those who saved lives at sea could be prosecuted for people smuggling offences, but that provision was defeated after a trade union campaign.

The UK hosts less than one percent of the global total of refugees, but far from protecting those ‘in genuine need’, this bill is an attack on refugee protections. Opposition campaigners have described it as an ‘anti-refugee bill’, and one hundred civil society figures condemned it as ‘overtly racist‘ in an open letter published in the New Statesman last week.

One part of the bill receiving particular attention is Clause Nine. Quietly added in before the new year, the clause gives the government the power to strip individuals of their citizenship without notice if it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ to inform them.

Rather than an act of new or unique cruelty, however, this clause builds on decades of legislation. The 1981 British Nationality Act, introduced by the Thatcher government, allowed an individual’s citizenship to be revoked if it was considered ‘conducive for the public good’, including in the interest of national security, as long as written notice from the secretary of state had been obtained. The Immigration Act 2014, pursued by then-Home Secretary Theresa May, then granted the state the power to strip a naturalised Brit of their citizenship even if it made them stateless, on the basis that they could apply for another nationality.

Clause Nine takes these measures and goes one step further. If the bill passes, nearly six million people in England and Wales could become eligible to be stripped of their citizenship without notice. Individuals are able to appeal against the deprivation of citizenship, as the government has been keen to point out—but it’s much harder to appeal a decision you know nothing about.

Characteristically, it’s those from minority backgrounds who will face the full force of this legislation. Analysis from the New Statesman back in December showed that two in every five people from non-white ethnic minorities (forty-one percent) are likely to be eligible for deprivation of citizenship, compared with just one in twenty (five percent) categorised as non-white. Dissected further, the analysis shows that half of all Asian British people in England and Wales are likely to be eligible to lose their citizenship without warning, along with two in five black Britons (thirty-nine percent).

It’s not just Clause Nine that builds on precedent. The Nationality and Borders Bill as a whole is the consolidation and continuation of the ‘Hostile Environment’ policy initiated in 2012 under the Coalition, intended to make life unbearable for those deemed unworthy of residency in this country. It was that policy that gave rise to the Windrush Scandal, which saw hundreds of people who had lived in Britain for decades wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and threatened with deportation. In at least eighty-three cases, individuals were wrongly deported, the lives they had built for themselves in Britain deemed disposable. Today, the scandal is far from over: in November, research showed that the Home Office has compensated just five percent of the Scandal’s victims.

Our political class has not learned from that scandal. Instead, the government’s total dereliction of duty towards the Windrush generation has set the precedent for an entire political approach. People of colour who have lived in Britain all their lives are being relegated to a second-tier category of citizenship which could see their existence criminalised at any moment, without warning. Asylum seekers newly arriving here, meanwhile, and often having undergone life-threatening journeys to escape death and disaster in the hopes of building better and safer lives for themselves and their families, will be criminalised the moment they set foot onshore.

The Nationality and Borders Bill expedites Britain’s race to the international bottom. No other country can currently make its citizens stateless without notice. Far from making anyone safer, this legislation makes real the fear that so often lies in the back of the minds of people of colour in Britain: that in the eyes of the establishment, they never truly belonged.