In his address to the Australian Parliament last Friday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron referred to the increasing number of foreign fighters joining Islamic State (IS). His government will soon propose measures to deter fighters from travelling, like Australia has done recently.
More controversially, his government will also propose new measures to stop fighters from returning to the UK.
The idea of stopping former jihadist terrorists from returning from Iraq and Syria has been reflected in Australian debates too. However, this is not a good option from a practical or policy perspective.
The federal government has already taken steps to cancel some passports on the advice of security agencies. This is not controversial: many countries attempting to stem their flow of foreign travel have done so to keep would-be jihadists under their watch, prevent terrorist actions and prosecute accordingly.
However, when asked about other measures which could be taken to protect Australia, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said cancelling citizenship would not be ruled out.
The Minister for Immigration & Citizenship can revoke someone’s citizenship but the ability to use this power is very limited.
Importantly, the minister does not have the power to take citizenship off anyone born here. So the minister can’t render Australian-born citizens stateless, as this is prohibited by Article 8 of the United Nations Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to which Australia is a signatory.
The minister has some ability to revoke the citizenship from someone who’d gain this privilege by application if ‘it would be contrary to the public interest for you to remain an Australian citizen’. Presumably, the minister has a big say in what’s contrary to the public interest. But it’s not clear if this covers those who become Australians citizens and lose their former nationality.
From a policy point of view, the possibility of stripping citizenship isn’t likely to achieve much. Whilst the numbers aren’t clear, there is evidence to suggest than most of these returning terrorists were born, raised and radicalised in Australia. Their citizenship cannot be revoked.
Some might argue that the risk of having one’s citizenship revoked may successfully deter would-be foreign fighters. However, those prepared to fight are most likely so deeply radicalised that the loss of the right to call Australia home may not be a significant enough factor in their decision-making. There’s anecdotal evidence that some destroy their Australians passports on arrival in the Middle East anyway.
There’s also a danger in treating terrorists separately to common criminals. We run the risk of glorifying their crimes, or adding to the ‘holy warrior’ rhetoric. Applying Australian prosecution mechanisms keeps them within the common criminal category, which is more desirable from a deterrent point of view and as a contributor to our international responsibility.
Citizenship is not a contract the government can deem null and void when satisfied that individuals have not held up their end of the bargain by being sufficiently loyal Australians. Some might argue that pledging loyalty to Australia and its people, to share their democratic beliefs, to respect their rights and liberties and to uphold and obey Australia’s laws, represents a social contract with new Australians.
However, it appears that most of the Australian foreign fighters were born here and automatically acquired Australian citizenship at birth, without actively taking any pledge to abide by the laws of this country.
Citizenship is both a privilege and a right. Part of that privilege is that Australia is a signatory to international conventions preventing statelessness and therefore their citizenship is also a right. Upholding this right amongst convicted terrorists allows us to monitor, disarm and prosecute dangerous individuals rather than adding to the great unknown of an international foreign fighter problem.
This article originally appeared in The Canberra Times.