There are two main routes for a refugee to acquire citizenship in the UK. The first is to be accepted onto a resettlement programme before arriving in the UK. The second is to arrive in the UK and to be recognised as a refugee or a person requiring international protection, to then be awarded indefinite leave to remain and then to make an application for citizenship after the required time period. I examine each of these routes in turn.
1. Citizenship by Resettlement
In 2002 the UK Government announced the Gateway Protection Programme in conjunction with the UNHCR to resettle 500 refugees every year with indefinite leave to remain. Persons with indefinite leave to remain can apply for citizenship after one year. Candidates for resettlement to the UK will have been classified by UNHCR field offices as refugees and selected on the basis that they have urgent humanitarian or security needs, are not able to return to their countries of origin and cannot integrate locally. The UK Home Office then makes the decision on who to accept under the UK programme. Despite this annual target of 500 refugees, as of February 2007, only 764 refugees in total had been resettled. Attaining UK citizenship through resettlement is therefore extremely unlikely. To put it in the global context, only around 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled each year.
2. Citizenship by Grant of Asylum or Temporary Protection
In 2005, the UK Government announced the New Asylum Model which consisted of a series of largely procedural changes that fundamentally altered how the Home Office processed asylum claims. Prior to the introduction of this model, successful asylum applicants were granted permanent refugee status with indefinite leave to remain. However, the New Asylum Model stipulates that refugees are now subject to a minimum five-year residency requirement and a successful review of their case before becoming eligible for permanent settlement. Given that the first reviews are expected in 2010, there is limited understanding of the implication of this new temporary refugee status, or it’s effect on refugee access to citizenship. What is clear however, is the fact that refugees have to live through a 5 year period of uncertainty before the Government confirms that they can reside in the UK permanently. Given that applicants must have indefinite leave to remain for one year before they can apply for citizenship, the requirement of residing in the UK for 5 years as a refugee prior to receiving indefinite leave to remain greatly increases the length and insecurity of the whole process.
It must be pointed out that unsuccessful asylum applicants may still be eligible for a grant of humanitarian protection or discretionary leave. Both grants are for temporary leave to remain (for 5 years and 3 years respectively). Whilst it is possible to apply for indefinite leave to remain and citizenship under these statuses, both are subject to active review before a person is eligible to apply for consideration for settlement.
3. Current Attitude to Awarding Refugee Status
It is important at this point to recognise the current attitude towards granting refugee status in the UK. Since the ratification of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees there has been a dramatic shift in the reception of refugees in the UK. Whilst refugees were welcomed to the UK in the aftermath of World War II, the current climate is so restrictive that the region has been termed ‘Fortress Europe.” Whilst I don’t intend analyse the reasons for this shift in any detail, suffice to say that the issue of refugee protection and awarding of citizenship status has always been predicated on a delicate balance between humanitarianism, states’ interests and political ideology.
The 1980s saw the beginning of regional European policy to establish a common regime for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. The European harmonization process points to an emphasis on policing borders and limiting entry, rather that an attempt to establish a just and fair protection regime. Practices of deterring asylum seekers include visa restrictions, increased powers for border police, the imposition of carrier sanctions, detention, reduction in legal aid for asylum seekers, and the inability to appeal asylum decisions in the country of claiming asylum. The non-entrée measures fail to distinguish those migrants who are in need of international protection from those who are seeking economic opportunities. Moreover the measures have displaced the ‘refugee problem’ through moving activity underground. This has resulted in the proliferation of people smuggling by trafficking rings, which in turn has led to the criminalization of the asylum seeker.
Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, domestic and foreign policy has been focussed on strengthening security to prevent terrorists entering Europe though the asylum system. Despite the fact that none of the terrorists involved had used asylum entry, fear of the ‘other’ and the rhetoric of national security have led to the perception of asylum seekers as potential terror suspects. This is also been reflected in the media portrayal of asylum seekers, which has served to homogenise and criminalise all immigrants, regardless of their motivation to flee their homeland. For example in 2005 the UK daily tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail ran with the headline ‘1 in 4 Asylum Seekers are Terror Suspects.’ As one commentator points out ‘through mass media, information influences consciousness and is at the core of individual and collective identity formation.’
All these factors have succeeded in restricting asylum seekers from entering the UK, effectively barring significant numbers from the attainment of full citizenship status. Moreover, the tougher reception of refugees in the UK and the increase in border and immigration controls instil the idea that refugees are a national ‘problem’ or that asylum seekers are ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’ and can be seen to institutionalise racism. It is not unrelated that the UK has experienced an increase in violence against ethnic minorities and immigrants in recent years.
4. The UK Citizenship Test
Indeed, for those that manage to reach the UK in order to claim asylum, the route to receiving full citizenship rights is far from straightforward. In addition to the revocation of automatic indefinite leave to remain for refugees, 2005 also saw the introduction of a new five-year plan on asylum and immigration entitled ‘Controlling our borders: Making migration work for Britain’. The strategy included the proposal to introduce English language and knowledge of British life tests, which applicants granted limited leave should be required to pass before qualifying for indefinite leave to remain. These are the same tests that must be passed in order to qualify for naturalization as a British citizen, but only need to be taken once.
The introduction of ‘British Life Tests’ or ‘Citizenship Test’ has been extremely controversial and has called into question the very concept of ‘Britishness.’ Whilst advocates of the citizenship test emphasise its focus on civic nationalism over ethnic nationalism, critics have called for the debate around Britishness to move away from the abstract notions of identity and focus more on its practical application. Critics argue that there is no ‘essential Britishness’ and any attempt to define it in terms of characteristics or knowledge possessed is to resort to in the words of Benedict Anderson, an imagined community. Others have referred to Britishness as an active, participatory identity, rather than consisting of certain knowledge that must be learned and tested.
Furthermore the introduction of a citizenship test with a 75% pass mark implies that there will be people that fail. That is, the introduction of the citizenship test suggests a level of cultural knowledge that must be known, or at least learnt to pass as ‘British.’ Given that the citizenship test will only apply to new applicants, it appears that the test is not attempting to address what British people think Britishness is, least of all what immigrants feel Britishness is, but an attempt to make foreigners more like an imagined Brit, that is an attempt to culturally assimilate the ‘other.’
The glaring irony in all of this is the fact that if all British citizens were required to sit the test there would be a huge amount of people who would not pass. The handout includes some examples of questions on the test. Out of interest I only got 3 questions correct, which would suggest that despite being British born citizen, I am not quite British enough. The issue of current British citizens not being able to pass the test not only points to an issue with the types of questions asked, or to the very attempt to define Britishness, but to why only new applicants for Citizenship are required to sit the test. This points to another model of social exclusion for the refugee.
In my opinion, at best the Citizenship test is another barrier to the attainment of settlement and citizenship for refugees and other foreigners. At worst, the Citizenship test is an attempt to assert cultural superiority and is therefore imbued with racism.