ICAR 'Focus On' February 2010: Earned citizenship for refugees

19 February 2010

As the consultation on earned citizenship closes, Jacob Lagnado suggests the issues raised are nothing new...

As the consultation on earned citizenship closes, a question comes to mind for the historically minded: have we not been here before?


Prior to 1844 becoming a British national was prohibitively expensive and complicated, involving a private member's bill in parliament. A series of laws from 1844 onwards introduced a growing list of pre-requisites for foreigners wishing to become British, such as the five year residency rule and proof that one was of ‘good character': building blocks of an earlier version of earned citizenship. Of particular interest to ICAR readers is that these laws defining who could and could not become British have at every historical stage been both shaped by and applied to refugee movements. For example, the 18th and 19th century legislation responding to the arrival of refugees from European wars and revolutions.


A common theme in recent citizenship research from a refugee and migration studies perspective is that of inclusion versus exclusion: in other words, the flipside of the ultimate safety represented by citizenship is being vulnerable to removal when things go wrong. This was the situation faced in the 1920s by seafarers from Yemeni, Aden, India and Somalia who, following disturbances brought on by an early version of ‘British jobs for British workers', "were told that they had to prove their citizenship rights from scratch,"[i] despite many being settled here for many years with British wives and children. One of the chief legal grounds for deporting these sailors was destitution. At the same time the 1905 Aliens Act allowed for a financial test to be applied at port, and this was used to turn away Eastern European refugees and migrants - the main targets of the Act. The link between citizenship and the right to remain and financial solvency is thus a longstanding one which continues up to the present day in the light of questions raised by a umber of refugee and migrant organisations concerning the financial costs associated with the earned citizenship process.[1]


Aside from their financial situation, both sailors and other refugees and migrants in the early part of the twentieth century were also vulnerable to deportation on charges of sedition and industrial unrest. This was possible as a result of post-WWI legislation in response to the militant brand of trade unionism known as industrial syndicalism. and then the Russian Revolution, being passed not just in Britain but across the world as the authorities identified political radicalism with migrants and refugees.


This issue of non-citizens' ability to engage in political and industrial action without fear of removal has arisen again in the citizenship debate today. Probationary citizens are advised to keep their heads down for the six to eight years required to attain full citizenship, picking up points through the correct kind of civic engagement, doing voluntary work while raising enough money to be reunified with their families and pay citizenship fees. But how Britain's future citizens will manage to follow the path set out to in a time of potentially severe economic downturn, remains to be seen.


Our new citizenship briefing explores links this and other aspects touched on here of current legislation with historical antecedents with recent research. 

[1] See for example JCWI (2009) Response by Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants to ‘earning the right to stay: a new points test for citizenship'

[i] Quoted in ‘Turning the Tide' by Mike Gerber, in Jewish Socialist No. 58. See also the bilingual publication of the play Riot by Peter Mortimer, Five Leaves Publications (2009). 

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