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Revocation of citizenship: The construction of boundaries between citizens

Fiona Buchanan  |  15 December 2019

Revocation laws create boundaries within the body of citizens, weakening the institution of citizenship and its basis in equality. Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash

In Australia, recent laws enabling citizenship to be revoked are portrayed as a tool to enhance the role and status of citizenship, ‘designed to protect the integrity of Australian citizenship and ... the sovereignty and safety of this country and its citizens’. In fact, these powers form part of a concerted strategy to demonstrate that the government is tough on border control, and in doing so stoke community fears of migration and terrorism alike. Applying only to dual citizens, the laws illuminate not the changing boundaries between citizen and non-citizen, but rather the construction of boundaries within the citizen body.

Australia’s laws, much like those of the UK, France and Denmark, allow the government to revoke citizenship from someone involved in terrorist activity. The UK has thus far revoked citizenship from some 120 Britons, while Australia has revoked citizenship from around 17 dual national Australians. This may be set to change, however, through recent attempts by the Australian government to strengthen these powers with a new bill.

Revocation laws as they stand in Australia create a two-tiered citizenship because of an explicit targeting of dual nationals. Due to Australia’s purported adherence to the prevention of statelessness as a signatory to the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, those with solely Australian citizenship are exempt. Some may claim that citizens have never been equal due to the very existence of dual nationals, who can benefit from citizenship of another country. However, where democracies are expected to treat each citizen equally under the law, they are now creating unequal precedents which attack the very fundamentals of belonging. Excepting First Nations peoples, Australia’s population is descended from immigrants, and today approximately 6 million Australians are dual nationals (while many more would have access to a second nationality through parents or grandparents). Of a country of 25 million, this substantial group of people potentially face greater punishment than others, simply by virtue of their second nationality. Considering Hannah Arendt’s definition of citizenship as the ‘right to have rights’, revocation threatens some citizens’ access to their basic human rights. The boundary within the body of citizens is thus constructed, weakening the institution of citizenship and its basis in equality.

Among other changes, the government’s new bill proposes to enable greater flexibility by allowing the Minister for Home Affairs to be merely ‘satisfied’ that an Australian citizen can access citizenship in another country, considering, for example, the nationality of parents and grandparents. Essentially, the bill proposes powers to denationalise citizens who are not yet dual nationals, but who could potentially access a second citizenship elsewhere, logically heightening the risk of statelessness and further eroding equality amongst citizens. 


Abstract boundaries in law between the citizen body become real when realising that dual nationals are usually migrants. Of course, the laws punish only the perpetrators of such extreme crimes as terrorism, yet the threat adds to the arsenal of governments who are increasingly tending towards anti-immigrant policies. In a world where migrants are all too familiar with the inequality between citizens and non-citizens – also known variously as ‘aliens’, ‘illegals’ or ‘undocumented’ – these laws are yet another instrument which demonises people as outsiders. In launching the new bill in parliament, the government proclaimed that ‘Australia is a united and cohesive country’, yet in the next breath the Prime Minister reverted to divisive language with comments such as, ‘We don't want these people in our country’. Such rhetoric echoes anti-immigration sentiment amid parallel attempts by the government in recent years to require would-be citizens to take a ‘values test’ and a ‘pledge of allegiance’ to the state. 


We need only consider one recent example to see these powers in action singling out the migrant community. Australian-born (yet dual Turkish-Australian national) Zehra Duman, who fled to Syria as a 19-year-old to marry an ISIS militant, has recently been stripped of her citizenship by the Australian government, and must now rely on her Turkish nationality to avoid being left stateless. With two children entitled to Australian citizenship, Duman is part of a group of Australian women and children in al-Hol camp in Syria, whom the government has so far refused to bring home, acting at odds with its Western counterparts.


The Australian Human Rights Commission, in its recent review of the push to strengthen citizenship revocation laws, cites research claiming that such powers serve ‘a largely symbolic function, rather than any clear national security purpose’. Both Australian and US intelligence officials note that revocation can even, in some cases, hinder counter-terrorism work. The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague has labelled such laws ineffective and counter-productive. It is fair to consider that the powers are symbolic and, rather than serving a practical purpose, aim to reinforce differences between migrant and non-migrant Australians. The laws attack notions of rootedness, rendering more visible the lines between those born in the country, and those born outside. Citizenship is the end of a long road for many migrants who have endured life as outsiders; these laws mean that they must now continue the fight to belong, even once they and their children become citizens.


For some, citizenship is no longer an entitlement, but a privilege – yet the threshold for stripping away this privilege is shaky. The Australian Minister for Home Affairs affirmed, ‘Dual citizens who choose to be involved in terrorism forfeit the privileges of Australian citizenship’. This statement is reflected in Matthew Gibney’s argument that denaturalisation laws create a new hierarchy of citizenship: where it has previously been constructed as an entitlement, it is now conditional on certain standards of behaviour. But if the stripping of citizenship is the ultimate punishment (as the signifier of the ‘right to have rights’), is terrorism the ultimate crime? This is indeed the position of the Australian government in considering terrorist-related conduct – such as membership of a terrorist organisation – as a betrayal of allegiance and a breach of the contract between state and citizen. However, in the UK, the government contemplated extending the punishment to those who have committed serious crimes, such as sex offences. There are inherent challenges to legislating the crimes serious enough for revocation and it is arguable whether national security is particularly distinctive as a demarcation, and unclear how far governments will reach. Considering the core values of liberal democracies, large-scale tax fraud could conceivably be seen as a denial of allegiance to the state on the same vein as terrorist offences committed abroad. The difficulty in drawing a line of criminal severity deserving of citizenship revocation further weakens the integrity of citizenship and calls into question whether such powers should ever be wielded by states.


As denationalisation has often been labelled a civic death, a spotlight should be shone on Australia’s attempts to increase executive powers to revoke citizenship. These laws can drive a wedge between citizens, altering the meaning of citizenship and inventing a real boundary between those of migrant background for whom citizenship is a privilege, and those for whom citizenship is an inviolable right. With the threshold for the stripping of citizenship easily manipulated, states like Australia are going down a worrying path.

Fiona Buchanan

Fiona has worked for both the Australian and UK governments for over five years as a policy adviser, including on migration. She has an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, where her research centred on the politics of gender in refugee resettlement. She also has an interest in refugee community sponsorship schemes, efforts to combat human trafficking, and the rights of LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. As well as playing netball and singing, Fiona enjoys learning Arabic, which she is currently trying to rekindle, despite now living back in her home town of Melbourne.

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