Hundreds of former Malaysians have been rendered stateless after being told an obscure British travel document would make them UK citizens.
Up to 1,000 Chinese Malaysians are now blocked from returning home while having no legal right to stay in Britain after receiving misleading legal advice. They were told that a combination of a British Overseas Citizens (BOC) passport – a relic from the UK's colonial past – and the formal rejection of their Malaysian identity would be an easy ticket to becoming British.
Instead, the Home Office has turned down their applications to stay in the UK and Malaysia refuses to recognise them as citizens. This has rendered them unable to live or work legally in either country.
It is likely that many other nationalities are also affected, as the BOC passport can be issued to people from any Commonwealth country.
Most of the Malaysians affected have been in the UK since 2002, when a law was passed that made it harder for those with BOC passports to become British. Some have been deported, only to be sent straight back to Britain on the return flight. Others arrived in Malaysia to be granted 30-day tourist visas which left them unable to work and forced them to leave the country every month.
Malaysians are not allowed to hold dual citizenship, which is why many were advised to make a formal rejection of their Malaysian nationality. They were not told such a decision would be irreversible.
Kenny Chin, 29, has been given only 30-day visas since being deported from the UK last August. He renounced his Malaysian citizenship when he first came to the UK eight years ago. The former restaurant manager has been told he will not be able to regain his citizenship, so he is forced to travel to the Thai border every month and cannot work legally.
"I knew they wouldn't recognise me in Malaysia because I'd been given a formal letter saying I was no longer Malaysian," said Mr Chin. "The Home Office just said 'keep quiet about the letter and it will be fine'. But when I arrived in Malaysia I was only given a tourist visa and when I went to try to get a new ID and passport the authorities said there was no such application. The British government doesn't want to take any responsibility – I just don't understand why it still has these BOC passports if they mean nothing."
Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, was outspoken on the issue when he met a stateless, former Malaysian, Tracy Koh, at an election event last year. He said: "Everyone here would agree that what Tracy has told us is simply unfair," before describing the immigration system as "inconsistent, bureaucratically incompetent and administratively chaotic".
Critics say the coalition has done nothing to change that situation.
Neil Jameson, the executive director of Citizens UK, said: "People like Tracy have been left stateless for too long. We need The Deputy Prime Minister to act quickly to rescue them from limbo so that they can get on with their lives and contribute to British society."
A spokesman for Mr Clegg said discussions were "ongoing about how to resolve this issue". The deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, Simon Hughes MP, said he would raise the issue again with ministerial colleagues.
"This should be seen as a distinct issue, separate from the general question of immigration," said Mr Hughes. "The numbers are small and it makes pragmatic sense to try to deal with all these types of cases in one go, as a matter of policy."
A report by the think tank IPPR for the Foreign Office, which is due to be released at the end of the month, singles out Malaysians duped into renouncing their citizenship as examples of "special cases" which would be most easily resolved by allowing them to stay in Britain.
Don Flynn, the director of Migrants' Rights Network, said "This complex situation has arisen from the legacy of the UK's colonial history, generating confusion and anguish. It would be helpful if the UK authorities could show some imagination and compassion and come up with a solution to finally resolve their circumstances."
Tracy Koh, 33: Lives in Bristol
"I arrived in the UK In 2002 with a two-year working holiday visa. I loved it so much I wanted to stay. I found I could apply for a British Overseas Citizen passport, which was granted in 2004. My application to become a British citizen was rejected the next year, but the Home Office said I could still apply for indefinite leave to remain if I could prove I was no longer Malaysian. I was advised by my solicitor to go to the Malaysian High Commission and renounce my nationality.
I then waited for four years to hear whether I could stay. Finally, a tribunal ruled I was still Malaysian and should go back, but now I have renounced my citizenship I can't. In Malaysia I have no passport and no ID and they won't accept me back but I'm not allowed to stay here legally either. No country will recognise me as a citizen.
My husband is Malaysian but he has legal status here. I'm five months pregnant and I can be deported any time. I don't want to be separated from my baby. I've lived in the UK for nearly a decade and I can't do anything. I was a construction manager and was offered a job but I can't take it because I'm not legal. I can't live like normal people."