Britain deports people who grew up here. This racialised system must end

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Citizenship is being denied to people whose home is the UK, says Dr Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust

Last week mass deportations resumed in Britain. It’s less than a year since the Windrush scandal broke – and the review into the events leading up to it hasn’t even reported back yet. This was a stark reminder that the government’s “compliant environment” policies have changed in name only: otherwise they remain as hostile as ever and continue to destroy the lives of black and ethnic minority people (BME) people – many of whom have lived in the UK since they were children.

Before the deportation flight the home secretary, Sajid Javid, declared that many of the “foreign national offenders” on the flight had committed “very serious crimes” – but soon after this the Home Office admitted that most of the deportees had committed minor crimes such as single drug or driving offences. More worryingly, 13 people on the Jamaican charter flight had come to the UK as children – nine of them were under the age of 10, 11 had indefinite leave to remain (ILR), and one person even had a British passport. Not only were most of the people on this flight “more British than foreign”, they were also being punished twice (three times if you include immigration detention) for crimes they had already served sentences for.

What the deportation cases starkly illustrate is that BME people, or indeed anyone who came here as a child, have every reason to fear that they could be deported at any time if their behaviour is deemed “unacceptable”, against the “public good” or not meeting “good character” requirements. Not only are these requirements vague in their definition (ranging from acts of terrorism to instances of “notoriety” and “other non-conducive activities”), but we also know they are applied disproportionately against BME people because of well-documented racial biases in the criminal justice system. Recent last-minute reprieves and appeal cases have highlighted that even factors such as settled immigration status, length of stay, or British family or children in Britain, do not guarantee citizenship rights if you have committed any kind of offence (minor or severe), or are accused of misleading the Home Office. Children as well as adults are all vulnerable to being labelled “illegal” – regardless of where they stand on the citizenship spectrum. The 1981 British Nationality Act removed birthright citizenship but parliament expressly intended for children born or raised in the UK to still be considered British on the basis of “close connection to the UK”. However, this citizenship right has been undermined by the extension of “good character requirements” in 2006 to children registering their citizenship. The Runnymede Trust, through our work with the Project for Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC), knows of more than 500 children (either born or raised here since childhood) who have been denied citizenship because they have failed “good character” requirements due to some contact with the criminal justice system in their childhood.

Last year, the support group Highly Skilled Migrants raised the issue of at least 1,000 skilled workers – teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers – who were also at risk of deportation, accused of “lying” in their ILR applications because they had committed errors in their tax records or had discrepancies in their “declared income”. Ten members of this group took the Home Office to court for unfairly using a section of the Immigration Act designed to tackle terrorists – nine won their cases.

Since the introduction of hostile environment policies in 2012, citizenship rights have been deliberately obscured, and deportation and removal targets have taken precedence over people’s entitlement to be in Britain. Home secretaries, including Javid, have claimed that the overwhelming majority of deportations were of “illegal immigrants”, but the Windrush scandal, and the steady stream of reprieves from deportation flights, illustrate that this isn’t the case.

The government has continuously lowered the bar for deportations. The test of Britishness is no longer about length of stay in Britain, “close connection” or even having a British family or children. It is now about what you can “prove” through stringent citizenship paperwork criteria and whether you’re able to pass a test of “character” that is highly racialised in the way it is applied.

There is no doubt that we need wholesale reform of immigration and citizenship laws. A good place to start would be to reintroduce birthright citizenship and to remove the application of good character requirements to adults and children who are simply registering their citizenship. In the meantime, the government should pay attention to recommendations from Stephen Shaw, the former prisons and probation ombudsman in its own commissioned review on immigration detention and deportations: “I find the policy of removing individuals brought up here from infancy to be deeply troubling. For low-risk offenders, it seems entirely disproportionate to tear them away from their lives, families and friends in the UK, and send them to countries where they may not speak the language or have any ties. For those who have committed serious crimes, there is also a further question of whether it is right to send high-risk offenders to another country when their offending follows an upbringing in the UK.”

• Dr Zubaida Haque is deputy director at the Runnymede Trust, a race equality thinktank

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