The return to Britain of Binyam Mohamed after a prolonged spell at George Bush’s pleasure in Guantanamo Bay is a cause for rejoicing; there can be no two ways about that. So why, amid all the smiles, do I find it hard to stifle some unease?
It has nothing to do with what Mohamed might or might not have done in Pakistan, Afghanistan or anywhere else. Nor do I believe, after all he has endured, that he will present a danger to the state or the British public. No, the reason is different, and not very charitable. But I suspect it might be widely shared.
Mohamed is an Ethiopian national. After arriving in Britain at the age of 15, he unsuccessfully sought asylum. In 2000, at the age of 22, he received exceptional leave to remain – which remained his status when he was arrested by Pakistan immigration officials two years later. He is not, and never has been, a British citizen.
Hailing his release yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said it was “the result of a number of years of very hard work by officials”. But how much responsibility, legal or moral, does a country really owe to those who have neither been born into citizenship nor sworn allegiance to the Crown?
Granted that the UK gave priority to securing the release from Guantanamo of those who were British citizens, perhaps citizenship demonstrated its advantage. But how many governments would have shown such a duty of care to a “resident”?
One view might be that the UK took a good and enlightened stance, fully justified by common humanity. But what were Foreign Office officials not working on, when they were negotiating for the release of these British residents? Is this a reasonable use of staff and taxpayers’ money?
If reports of British intelligence complicity are to be believed, the officials might, of course, have been acting out of a guilty conscience. Or perhaps they banked on inspiring loyalty among other foreign residents. But the downside of such logic is that those who settle here see that scant benefit accrues from citizenship – and, conversely, that there is scant penalty for remaining “foreign”.
Trying to forge a sense of national belonging was what Gordon Brown’s “Britishness” campaign – remember that? – was all about. It was part of the thinking behind the Citizenship test: that new Britons and old should share a body of common knowledge. And it underlay recent provisions that encourage applicants for citizenship to make some contribution to the community.
But encouragement to take out citizenship, by itself, is unlikely to reduce the ethnic self-segregation and “parallel lives” that have so concerned ministers for a decade. Indeed, by progressively toughening citizenship requirements, the Government sends out a contradictory message.
Nor is it the only one. The other relates to the comparative status and entitlements enjoyed by “residents” and “citizens”. As anyone who has collected the utility bills and council tax statements needed to claim almost everything, including access to the NHS, residency, not citizenship, is the prime qualification.
For some there is actually a downside to seeking citizenship: it is expensive, can be time-consuming, and brings you into contact with an officialdom you might prefer to keep at bay. Nor, for citizens, is there much of an upside. If you spend periods abroad, you disqualify yourself from NHS treatment. Almost the only advantage of citizenship is a vote for your MP.
There are good reasons why so many entitlements flow from residency. The idea is that there should not be two tiers of legal residents. Barring non-citizens from the NHS could make disease more widespread, for everyone, and the same goes for housing. It is not only morally wrong to leave whole families homeless, but damages the quality of life for all. Solidarity is the mark of a civilised society.
Yet the question of “fairness” is rising inexorably up the political agenda, and there are hints that ministers are considering a more direct link between citizenship and access to public services. Unwelcome though such a shift might be to many, it is one that this government has brought upon itself. It has allowed the impression to gain hold that citizenship, because it confers little advantage, has no worth. In this respect, the best thing Binyam Mohamed can do, once he regains his strength, is to join a citizenship class and earn his passport.