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‘Maximum Suffering.’ A Man Stripped of His Citizenship Sheds Light on the Potential Impact of the U.K.’s Nationality Bill

17 minute read

In October 2017, while on a work trip in Turkey, a man known as N3 received a life-changing phone call.

It was his mother on the other end, back home in Britain, where he had lived most of his life, with a letter that had arrived in the mail informing him he had been stripped of his British citizenship. He was accused of being “aligned to a group that is aligned with Al Qaeda,” but, even after all charges were dropped, he was never told what evidence they had against him.

The man, who has been identified only as N3 under legal proceedings to protect his privacy, had only meant to stay in Turkey for a few weeks. He says he was tying up loose ends on some projects, working with a U.K. charity to provide shelter for Syrian orphans and widows in Turkey, and developing an eco-friendly plastic alternative that he hoped might facilitate a trade between Bangladesh and Turkey. But when his citizenship was taken away, so too was the certainty of when he might return home to his mother and three young children.

“In the initial days my mind went completely blank,” N3 tells TIME over email through his lawyer, in his first interview since returning to the U.K. He spent three and a half years stuck in limbo, first in Turkey, then in France, all while fighting against the British government to regain his citizenship and return home to his family in the U.K.

N3’s story is the type of case that campaigners worry could be on the rise, particularly as the U.K. edges closer to making citizenship deprivation easier. The full extent of the practice is currently not publicly known because the British government does not disclose the number of people who have been stripped of their citizenship or the reasons for deprivation.

“When we first began capaigning on these issues a decade ago, we noticed a connection between [citizenship] deprivation and extrajudical state intervention, either through drone strikes or illegal rendition, imprisonment and torture,” says Muhammad Rabbani, the Managing Director of CAGE, an advocacy group that provides support for victims of the war on terror and helped N3 throughout his case. “The use of this power has dramatically increased in recent years, affecting aid workers, holiday makers and even entire families.”

The Free Movement, an organization which provides information on immigration and asylum law, has estimated through freedom of information requests that at least 464 people have been stripped of their citizenship since 2006. In 2017, the year N3 lost his citizenship, the U.K. saw a peak of 148 cases of citizenship deprivation.

Now, the Nationality and Borders bill, which is currently working its way through Parliament, seeks to grant the government further power in cases of citizenship deprivation. Clause 9, hastily added before the bill passed through the House of Commons after just 9 minutes of debate, would allow the government to strip an individual of British citizenship without providing warning, if it is not “reasonably practical” to do so, as long as that person is deemed to be eligible for citizenship elsewhere.

More than a hundred charities, creatives and professionals have signed a joint statement denouncing the bill as “overtly racist” and calling for an end to citizenship deprivation. A petition circulated at the end of last year demanding for Clause 9 to be removed gathered over 300,000 signatures.

“The Nationality and Borders Bill is a reprehensible assault on the right to asylum and citizenship,” says Rabbani. “Clause 9 cements the existence of a racist two tier citizenship deprivation regime and frees the hand of the Home Office to deprive people with even less scrutiny by doing away with the notification requirement.”

Under the current law, a person must be notified if their citizenship is revoked. Once becoming aware of the deprivation, individuals may appeal the decision through the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC). However, deprivation orders are often issued once an individual is already out of the country, as N3’s was, making it difficult to appeal. The individual is also not told what evidence is being used against them.

Fahad Ansari, an attorney who specializes in citizenship deprivation and who represented N3 in his legal case, notes that the passing of this bill would further complicate the appeals process. “Inevitably it is more difficult to appeal a decision that you know nothing about,” says Ansari.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Home Office said, “Our priority is to ensure the safety and security of the U.K. Deprivation of British citizenship only happens after very careful consideration of the facts and in accordance with international law.” The Home Office does not provide comment on individual cases, but the spokesperson noted that, “Each case is assessed individually on its own merits and always comes with the right of appeal.”

Under international law, a person cannot be deprived of their citizenship if it will make them stateless. The British government had issued its deprivation order against N3 on the assumption that he could claim citizenship in Bangladesh because he is of Bangladeshi heritage. As part of his appeal against the government’s decision, N3 argued that, because he had not claimed citizenship in Bangladesh when he turned 21, his right to citizenship there had lapsed.

In a legal observation published in January, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned that the bill undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which the U.K. is a signatory, and that Clause 9 “would increase the risk of U.K. citizens, including children, being made stateless, in contravention of the U.K.’s international obligations.”

“There is a strong international consensus that the right to a nationality and the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of nationality are fundamental principles of international law,” the observation states.

Soon after he learned of the deprivation order, Turkish intelligence officers came knocking. His name had been flagged to them by British authorities, but after conducting a background check, they told him he was free to live his life in Turkey, with the police checking in on him every few weeks. Still, he feared he might be deported or detained at any moment if the tides changed. His British passport had been invalidated by the deprivation order, leaving him unable to apply for a Turkish visa or residency.

In subsequent meetings, officers would bring up names and locations that made it clear to him that the interrogation efforts didn’t stem from Turkish intelligence. “I understood that these questions came from elsewhere,” he said.

As the appeal process dragged on, he tried to live as normally as possible under the circumstances. “I just had to get on with life,” he says of that time. He focused on his charity work and other small business interests he had, making enough money to get by.

“The Turkish intelligence officers told me clearly that had I had an ‘English’ name I would have been rewarded and given a medal for the great work I did,” says N3. “It stuck with me that even they could see the racism I was being subjected to.”

The U.K’s eroding citizenship rights

The U.K. has long held the power to strip citizenship, though has only begun to use it regularly in recent decades. “The practice goes back to the times of the World Wars when it was used to target nationals who had connections with enemy countries,” says Devyani Prabhat, a legal scholar at the University of Bristol who specializes in citizenship. The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1918 introduced the practice of deprivation for disloyalty or treason, though the law and subsequent ones did not apply to British-born citizens. “This predates universal human rights and is a pre-globalisation idea, that having multiple allegiances puts national security at risk,” says Prabhat.

Between 1973 and 2006, not a single person in the U.K. was deprived of their citizenship. In 2003, shortly after the U.S. and U.K.-led invasion of Iraq, the Labour government loosened the law, removing protections against deprivation for individuals born into British citizenship and allowing the removal of citizenship of anyone seen as “seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the United Kingdom or a British overseas territory,” in an effort to deport London Imam Abu Hamza, whose hate speech led to nationwide calls for his deportation. The conditions of the law were relaxed further in 2006, so that the government could revoke citizenship if an individual was seen as “not conducive to the public good,” Prabhat notes that this gave the government more discretion over who could be deprived of their citizenship. “This is a low threshold that can be used in a broad manner: there are no checks.”

Ansari notes that, because deprivation orders cannot be used against individuals with one citizenship, the law has a disproportionate impact on non-white citizens, who are more likely to have connections to other countries. “By enabling the Home Secretary to strip someone of their citizenship simply because he or she believes it is ‘not conducive to the public good’ for them to be British, parliament has given the government unprecedented power to act as judge, jury and executioner without adequate safeguards on the use of that power,” he says.

Some advocacy groups believe the crackdown is correlated to rising Islamophobia and fears of terrorism as some British citizens traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq in recent years. But, since the government does not share the details of the cases—or any evidence being used against an individual, there is little clarity about the rationale. Ansari notes that many of the recent cases have involved individuals located in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

“It is often a means for the Home Office to absolve itself of its legal responsibilities towards its citizens, as we’ve seen with the young abandoned children caught up in the prison camps in Syria,” says Rabbani.

The case of Shamima Begum, who was stripped of her citizenship after she left the U.K. to fight with the Islamic State in Syria in 2015, ignited public debate about the practice when she later sought to regain her citizenship.

“Recent cases have demonstrated that the power is being used against non-national security cases and it is a very slippery slope we are on,” says Ansari. “It is a far cry from what the government said in Parliament when seeking to change the test in 2002, arguing that it would only be used for ‘the most flagrant cases of disloyalty.’”

“It’s the principle of the thing,” says Prabhat. “If any one minister can take away your citizenship without showing any evidence and notifying you, what does it say about the value of citizenship?”

Read more: Shamima Begum and the Legality of Making a Citizen Stateless

Before it happened to him, N3 was unaware of the practice of citizenship deprivation, let alone that it was something that might impact him. “[The U.K. is] the only home I have on this planet.” He was born in Bangladesh, but moved to Britain with his family when he was 3 years old. He began his career doing gang mediation work for the council in the London neighborhood where he grew up. He later joined a charity and focused on international aid work. The majority of his work took him to Syria, where he organized emergency medical services, food distribution, and shelters for victims of the conflict.

“It was all together a very humbling and enriching experience,” he says. “There is a great sense of humility you gain through serving others, and being privileged enough to be in such a position.”

In 2013, while en route to Syria, he was stopped by intelligence officers in a U.K. airport, who he says only appeared concerned for his well-being. They asked about his travel arrangements, the amount of money he had on him, and paperwork.

“You are doing a fantastic job,” he says he was told. “Keep it up and good luck.”

When he was stopped another time during the summer of 2017, under section 7 of the Terrorism Act, it was more of a nuisance than cause for concern. He described the practice as “a regular inconvenience for Muslims travelling in and out of the U.K.” He had expected them to question him about his work in Syria, but instead, he was asked about his political opinions and personal beliefs. Still, he was not alarmed. “I appreciated they needed to carry out some due diligence,” says N3.

He later returned to Turkey without incident. “I had no reason to suspect that anything was amiss,” he says.

Appealing citizenship deprivation

A year after his appeal began, the SIAC ruled that the government had unlawfully stripped N3 of his citizenship. Within weeks, the U.K.’s Home Office appealed the decision. N3 decided to wait in Turkey, unsure if the appeal would impact his ability to travel on his passport. But when it came time for the Home Office’s appeal to be heard in court, N3 knew he wanted to be there when it happened.

“I wanted to come back to the U.K. and be present in court to confront my accusers and to also show the judges that there was a human being being impacted by all of this, it was not just another initial,” he recounts.

He was wary of taking a direct flight to the U.K, aware that if he was refused entry he would be deported back to Turkey, where he would face imprisonment for up to two years. “I knew enough about Turkey to understand how poor conditions in Turkish prisons were.”

Instead, he took the first flight going to Europe, where he landed in Germany, without issue. He made his way to Calais, a French port town so close that the English coast is visible on a clear day. He passed through security with ease.

When he crossed over to the British side of the ferry port to travel to the U.K., he handed over his passport and paperwork to the immigration officer, who refused to let him pass.

“The immigration officer said I had ‘insufficient ID’ and that I was a Bangladeshi attempting to enter the U.K. illegally,” says N3. “ I couldn’t believe it.”

Designated as not being a British citizen, N3 was handed over to French immigration officials. While he was detained in France, the U.K. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Home Office on a technicality, finding that the SIAC had wrongly placed the burden of proof on the government to show that N3 had not been made stateless, rather than upon N3 himself to prove he had. For N3, it felt as if his citizenship had been rescinded a second time.

He was held in a deportation center while French authorities looked to deport him to Bangladesh. When N3 sought asylum in France, authorities put a hold on his deportation order while his application was considered and released him under house arrest in a town 2.5 miles from Lance, isolated among a network of motorways, with not even animals in sight. In November of 2020, he was suddenly arrested again due to what he was told were COVID-19 policies. He was held in prison for nearly 2 weeks before being released back to house arrest.

He was made to walk six miles a day to sign in at a police station and was denied medical treatment when he contracted COVID-19 at the peak of the pandemic. He struggled with being isolated from his family.

“Despite being so close to your family in the U.K., you are so far away and still separated from them. It gives you a bit of freedom but in reality you are imprisoned.”

It was not until April 20, 2021 that things turned around for N3. The U.K. Home Secretary, Priti Patel, withdrew the decision to deprive N3 of his citizenship, after three other SIAC appeals by citizens with Bangladeshi heritage were won. Although N3 was able to return to the U.K., most victims of citizenship deprivation are unsuccessful in their appeals,

Soon after, N3 was given notice by the deportation center to pack his things. The next morning, he was handed over to British police to be taken to the U.K.

He was taken to Southwark police station in London, where he was held under the Terrorism Act. For the first time, he was interrogated about the allegations that had led to his exile of almost four years.

At one point, he was shown a picture that the police claimed was a military camp, which he says was a picture from a vacation in Turkey. “Imagine this would be used as ‘secret evidence’. How could you defend yourself against this?” he says.

He says that his ex-wife’s house was searched by police, who seized all electronic devices, including the one used by his kids to do homework and watch cartoons. Social Services got involved, wanting to assess whether the children were at risk of radicalisation from N3, he was told. “It was such a joke,” he says, “ It was like they were desperate to stick something on me.”

N3 was released from custody after two weeks without any charges. Eventually, Social Services concluded there was no risk and closed their investigation, he says.

“N3’s case is exceptional in that he’s one of the very few who have successfully overturned his citizenship deprivation,” says Rabbani.

Now, he is home again, relieved, but starting over in many ways. “I have to begin from scratch again,” says N3. “Everything has been erased.” He is unable to return to the charity sector, which he devoted most of his life to. He missed out on a lot of the moments that define fatherhood: playing football in the park, providing for them, talking to them about their days. “My daughter who I left as a little child was now a young woman.”

He is left with the trauma and betrayal of an ordeal that he says “was intended to cause maximum suffering.” He suffered from short term memory loss, and still finds it difficult to sleep.

“While growing up our parents would tell us that one day we may be kicked out of this country,” says N3. This distrust is not surprising, since a number of first and second generation South Asians in the U.K. have been subjected to racism and xenophobia in many forms. “To be honest I never felt that way, I felt Britain was my country,” says N3. “Now I feel like a second class citizen, and what my dad said is true now. Now it seems all that racism is coming back in a different institutional form.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com