‘Citizenship and the law’, Devyani Prabhat, University of Bristol

Dr Devyani Prabhat is a reader in Law at the University of Bristol Law School. She has legal practice experience in Constitutional Law, and is also an Attorney at Law, New York. She researches and teaches Migration, Citizenship and Nationality from a socio-legal and comparative perspective. She recently completed a project on British Citizenship and the Practice of Nationality Laws. The project focused on the processes of gaining, holding and losing citizenship, and the role of nationality law practice for long term residents or British citizens.  Her All Souls seminar highlighted aspects of this research, which focused on how the definition of citizenship is altered by wider changes in the social and political landscape.

A recording of the lecture is available here


Time to read

4 Minutes

Dr Prabhat started the seminar by highlighting the talk would not just discuss Shamima Begum as a human interest subject, but would also cover the use of legal powers in relation to citizenship and potential statelessness, and what the implications are for the usage of such powers. She then analysed why such powers exist, and how they connect with past legal measures and the history of citizenship in this country.

She began by highlighting that Shamima was born in Britain, and has British parents who are of Bangladeshi origin. At the age of 15 she travelled to Syria to aid the Islamic State fighters. She now cannot re-enter the UK, because her citizenship has been cancelled by the government. Shamima does not hold any other citizenship, and in effect is stateless now. Dr Prahbat then pointed to the international framework on statelessness and the right to nationality, of which the UK is a signatory, thus acknowledging the government cannot create statelessness. However, there is a caveat to this; in the interests of national security, naturalized people can be stripped of their citizenship. However she highlighted this is not a central question for the Shamima Begum legal case, as she is not a naturalized citizen, so the scope of the reservation does not apply.

She then outlined the standard of conduct for cases in which cancellation can occur. The first is whether it is conducive to the public good to cancel the citizenship. This typically is considered in instances of terrorism and war crimes, which are both deemed as unacceptable behaviour. It is a broad standard for defining what is conducive to the public good and can potentially expand beyond the scope of national security. It also has to be conducted in a manner seriously prejudicial to the interests of the UK. Additionally, to be stripped the nationality in question does not have to be already existing - it can be a future nationality. This is particularly interesting for the Shamima Begum case because one of the arguments presented by the UK government is that she has eligibility for Bangladeshi nationality. Although she does not actually hold it at present, according to Bangladeshi statute until she is 21, she has a claim through her parents to citizenship. Dr Prabhat pointed out again this is applicable only to naturalized citizens, so does not apply in the context of Shamima, who was born in the UK. Dr Prahbat noted Shamima is 19. Even if the bill is heard, she will be more than 21 by the time it comes to pass, so it will not be pertinent in addressing the matter of her citizenship.

The third consideration is whether the person is born in the UK. If they are not a British citizen, but hold another nationality, there can be cancellation of citizenship as there is no risk of statelessness. Dr Prahbat highlighted a person who is not born here, and doesn't have another nationality, can have their citizenship cancelled, and they can be rendered stateless, on the grounds of reasonable belief they might be eligible for another citizenship and might acquire citizenship someday.

In this context, the precarity of British citizenship of non-white people bears resemblance to the notion of subjecthood during the British Empire. Under this differential treatment, a resurgence of a loyalty and allegiance model occurred, drawing back from another equally flexible understanding of the legal status of subjecthood. The impetus behind defining this occurred because Canada defined British subjecthood as limited to its own citizens in 1948. For the first time, this definition legally violated the principle of equality and free movement which was there in theory within the British Empire at large, even if not in practice. This action in effect was subjecthood mediated through the lens of citizenship in the dominions, resulting in decolonisation. The British Nationality Act, as a reaction to this, took radical action in declaring anyone from the British Empire could live in the UK, resulting in the 1948 Nationality Act. The next few decades of successive immigration acts began to redefine who could enter and reside in the United Kingdom. The central focus of immigration laws since then has been to undo what the 1948 Act did.

In the 60s and 70s, a large number of East Asian Africans came to the UK as a result of the dictatorial regimes of African nationalism. A lot of the people there who had British passports wanted to exercise their right to enter into the UK. There was a resulting backlash against this by the British government, who said those passports were not intended to be used as travel documents. Many of these individuals were subsequently deported. These individuals took their case to the European Commission of Human Rights, stating they were in receipt of inhumane and degrading treatment in the form of racism and discrimination. In response, the UK government acquiesced, and started a voucher system for each head of household who wanted to resettle in the country.

Dr Prahbat highlighted that government attempts to decolonise the country were further achieved by introducing another legal creation, the right of abode, which people could get if they were designated as patriots. The 1971 Immigration Act created two categories; patrials who have a special connection with the country and non patrials. In effect, this was the continuation of the Dominion vs. colony separation. Dominions being the settlement places which supposedly have a similar population to the UK, whereas the non-patriots residing in the colonies were not able to prove such a link. As a result, they were automatically eliminated from future migration.

Dr Prahbat concluded the talk by summarising the implications of this for cancellation laws. Cancellation of citizenship is justified as a national security measure. Dr Prahbat argued it was not important as a national security measure, as there has typically been no evidence provided by any government about how it has been useful. However, what it does achieve is keeping people outside the country. It’s less of a national security measure, but a further measure where ethnicity is becoming again another source of tension. It signals there are certain – usually non-white - populations who need to be managed, for instance those who go to Syria who take part in the acts of Islamic State, and who are by and large the progeny of the people who came in the 1960s and 1970s to the UK. Here, matters of citizenship and subjecthood were previously used as a means of extending jurisdiction, whereas after the loss of empire, cancellation of citizenship sends the message the UK would not exercise jurisdiction over these populations. Overall, thinking about citizenship through subjecthood helps one reflect on issues of extra territoriality and how and why the UK chooses to exercise jurisdiction over some populations, but not others. 

Questions from the audience focused on issues of citizenship, for instance those of free movement, immigration and acquiring citizenship itself. Overall, Dr Prahbat provided an in-depth overview of her interesting work on citizenship, and a fascinating perspective on how notions of citizenship and statelessness tie into wider socio-political processes such as colonisation and migration.

By Kathryn Farrow, a student on the MSc Criminology and Criminal Justice programme'