Is the UK Citizenship Model in Need of Reform?

Elan Schwartz

In an attempt to bring awareness to the increasing problem of statelessness, Dr Bronwen Manby of the LSE Middle East Centre convened a workshop, ‘Preventing Statelessness among Migrants in North Africa’, where she shared the findings of research conducted in partnership with research centres in Egypt and Morocco, and invited others to speak on their engagement with the same issues in other contexts.

The workshop featured a wide diversity of speakers that reflected on their respective organization’s research and experience with statelessness. Among the speakers was Solange Valdez-Symonds, a solicitor in the Migrant Resource Center (MRC). Ms. Valdez-Symonds’ presentation situated the problem of statelessness in a much more local and unexpected context: the United Kingdom. In doing so, she brought attention to the fact that concerns of statelessness are by no means confined to the ‘developing world’. Ms. Valdez-Symonds highlighted the complexities of the UK Immigration system, and explained how it has developed in a way that contributes to the creation and subsequent maintenance of statelessness in the UK.

Birth registration law in England and Wales dictates that a child must be registered within 42 days of birth (Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, s. 2). A similar requirement will apply to abandoned newborns found by informants, with a 42-day deadline to register a newborn after being found. While the government’s website confirms this information, it does not warn the public that failure to register a child’s birth is a summary offence, constituting a penalty fine of £200 (Criminal Justice Act 1982, s. 37(2)). Valdez-Symonds’ mentioned that she only became aware of this penalty after consulting the criminal, birth, and register laws directly - something someone outside the legal profession is highly unlikely to do.

While there are no official records of how many births go unregistered, it is estimated by Her Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) that approximately 20 births are not being registered within the first 12 months (excluding those born outside of health service delivery). This figure seems to suggest that birth registration is being effectively regulated in the UK. The issue at stake is not the lack of birth registration in the UK per se. Rather, it is the disassociation of birth registration from legal identity and consequently legal status. National guidelines issued by the Home Office state that UK birth certificates are ‘evidence of an event’ of birth, and not evidence of an ‘individual’s (legal) identity’. The consequences of this line of reasoning is that birth registration does not automatically provide legal status as a British citizen.

Before January 1st 1983, any person born in the UK (other than a small list of exemptions such as children born to diplomats) acquired citizenship at birth. The UK declared the end of birthright as citizenship, however, under the British Nationality Act of 1981 (BNA 1981). Following the enforcement of the 1981 Act, children who are born in the UK are only deemed British if one of their parents is British or was settled in the UK during the time of their birth. Under the new mandate, children who are born in the UK and have only ever lived in the UK may not automatically be entitled to citizenship. In lieu of this, several provisions were introduced by Parliament under the BNA 1981 to mitigate the problems created through the termination of citizenship as birthright.

Firstly, abandoned newborns are treated as born in the UK to British parents, and thereby acquire British citizenship. Curiously, there is no statutory definition as to what ‘new-born’ means in terms of age. Secondly, a special provision was introduced under the 1981 Act in recognition of the fact that the end of birthright citizenship would increase the number of stateless children. The UN Refugee Agency defines a stateless person as someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law” (Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons 1954, Article 1).  This status can occur at birth or can be a product of lived circumstances, such as the emergence of new states or territory transfers. In order to protect against the detrimental consequences of statelessness, the provision provides children born in the UK who are stateless at birth and who continue to be stateless an entitlement to register. That being said, this right to registration is limited to persons under the age of 22, who have completed 5 years of continuous residence in the UK without being absent for more than 450 days (BNA 1981, s. 4(2)). Thirdly, children born in the UK to migrant parent(s) who then become settled or British, have an entitlement to register as a British citizen (BNA 1981, s. 1(3)). Lastly, a person born in the UK and who has lived in the UK during the first 10 years since their birth has an entitlement to register, so long as they can prove evidence of this (BNA 1981, s. 1(4)).

Despite the introduction of these provisions, there are still many obstacles preventing children from asserting their right to citizenship. The foremost issue is the lack of public awareness of the legal right to register as a citizen if one falls into one of the four above mentioned categories. Due to the inadequate amount of information sharing, many children and adults have no status despite having been born in the UK. To make matters worse, even if a person is aware of their legal right, they may not be able to access it because of the steep registration fee, ranging up to £1,012 (Immigration Act 2014, s. 68). All children, including stateless children, are expected to pay this fee in order to pursue the citizenship claims they are entitled to under law. It should be noted that over and above administration costs, the fee includes a profit-making amount of over £600. The pathway to justice for children is being further undermined by the introduction of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which has cut funding for any legal aid towards the assistance or advice in registration applications.

People like Valdez-Symonds at the PRCBC work to break down the barriers in place so that children are able to exercise their right to register as British citizens. The PRCBC’s efforts include raising awareness of this issue through monthly advice programs, assisting affected youth through the provision of legal advice and legal aid, providing training to assisting organizations, and extensive legal research of the law in this area. Entitlement to citizenship is an absolutely essential right because it affords all of the protections and advantages we often take for granted as citizens, such as access to education, loans, health and social services, and of course, the right to remain in the country of origin. Importantly also, citizenship forms an integral part of one’s identity and feeling of belonging with one’s country of residence. The UK government needs better protection and support mechanisms in place so that people do not fall within the cracks of the law.

This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”

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