Once in a while a case comes along which has the capacity to pull the rug from under our feet.
Shamima Begum’s is one of them, because it confirmed the fears of first- and second-generation immigrants that they never really belonged to Britain.
That there would come a time when the government would become so right wing that the children of immigrants, regardless of British birth, would be sent “home”, used to be a thought buried deep our minds.
How could these places – often never visited or left in early childhood – ever really be “home” for people like us?
Did we believe she was inherently evil? Or were we understanding enough to appreciate that Begum was then a vulnerable 15-year-old who had been brainwashed and used for sex in a cult?
We were armchair viewers, content to espouse opinions knowing that her actions and the consequences of her actions would not affect us. That changed last week with the decision of the home secretary.
A son of Pakistani immigrants himself, Sajid Javid took the unprecedented step to strip Begum’s British citizenship. And in that same moment, made the citizenship of millions of British-born second-generation citizens, many of them people of colour, conditional.
My personal response was one of cynicism: here was a politician already setting out his stall for the not-far-off Conservative Party leadership campaign.
I do have enough faith in the legal institutions of this country to believe that the home secretary’s decision will eventually be overturned. Add to that the statement made by the Bangladeshi government that Begum has no right to claim citizenship of their country. International law does not permit a person to be made stateless.
But it was the insecurity and fear that the home secretary reawakened in the minds of the first generation of immigrants which really irked me. Despite living in Britain for decades, my parents always felt that they were second-class citizens in the place they called home. I suppose it was an unavoidable feeling for those who faced the racism of the Sixties and Seventies and were ridiculed for speaking English with an accent. But they always said that it was worth it because their British-born children would belong to this country, unconditionally.
It was when I was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room that I realised that this was my mother’s worst nightmare. Sitting nervously with hands clasped, she looked to me for a distraction from the dentist’s chair. “What’s happened to that girl Shamima?”
“She can’t return here. The government have taken her British passport away.”
There was confusion on her face. “I thought you said she was born here and she has no dual citizenship.”
“She was and she doesn’t.”
“Because the home secretary says as Shamima’s mother is Bangladeshi, she can claim another citizenship through heritage.”
My mum grimaced and I couldn’t tell if it was the toothache, or my revelation that Javid had set the precedent to make British citizenship conditional, that caused it.
“First they removed all those poor Caribbean people who lived here since they were children,” she mumbled, referring to members of Windrush generation who were wrongfully deported for not having the correct documentation.
“That was the first sign that they’re going to kick us out,” she continued.
She began to reel off the names of elderly uncles who fled their homes in Myanmar in the 1960s and eventually made the mill towns of Lancashire their home. This was at the invitation of the British government to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. A subject I’ve written about.
“Mum, they had to leave because of the coup d’état.”
I explained the military takeover of the democratic state.
It didn’t take her long to think of another example. “What about those African Asians?” She tried to remember the name of an old friend of my dad.
“You mean the one from Uganda?”
She shrugged. “Is that where he was from?”
“Yes, and the man who kicked them out was called Idi Amin. He was a dictator.”
She didn’t look convinced. “All powerful people are the same. They decide they don’t need you anymore so they use that power to get rid of you.”
I didn’t know how to reassure her except with the words: “It’s not going to happen here.”
“It might. My children’s passports mean nothing if they can take it away because I was born in India.”
“No,” I answered firmly. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re British. We belong here. There is no other place to call home.”
A week on from the decision about Begum’s citizenship, the debate continues with all its questions and legal technicalities, and Javid has refused to back down despite the outrage.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, another son of Pakistani immigrants and a human rights lawyer by training, said: “Sajid Javid hasn’t only exposed how insecure the citizenship rights of these people are, he has called into question the very nature of what it means to be a citizen of this country at all.”
While Tell Mama, the organisation that measures anti-Muslim attacks, released the following statement:
“Human rights are non-negotiable, and such actions, which include making citizens stateless, will only foster a two-tier system of citizenship, breach fundamental rights, and risk creating a racialised hierarchy of ‘Britishness’.”
Clearly, Begum’s case has evolved into something bigger than her. It affects every single British child of a British parent born overseas. More disturbingly, it shines a light on the question of who is really British and who is merely tolerated as such, for now.
Sufiya Ahmed is the author of ‘Secrets of the Henna Girl’ (PenguinRandomHouse) and a contributing author to the new bestseller ‘It’s Not About the Burqa’ (Picador), out now
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