Peter Hughes. Citizenship Revocation: a very limited tool in the fight against Jihadists

May 29, 2015

This is a repost of an article by Peter Hughes which appeared on 20 February 2015.  This repost is relevant in light of recent discussion on revocation of citizenship.


Liberal Federal MP, Andrew Nikolic, has put back on the agenda the question of changing the law on Australian Citizenship revocation as part of the fight against Australian Jihadists.[1]

He writes:

 “…the issue of state citizenship – particularly that of dual nationals – will be an increasingly important battleground in the continuing War on Terror”

“Those who persist in associating themselves with terrorist causes must be identified and wherever possible ejected from the state.”

Current Australian Citizenship law sets a high bar for revocation. Before it can even be considered, the person must have been convicted of a serious offence (primarily, fraudulent acquisition of citizenship) committed before becoming a citizen. Offences committed after becoming a citizen are a matter for the criminal law and are not a basis for revocation of citizenship.

To deal with the Jihadist problem, the government already has available to it criminal sanctions as well as the ability to withhold or cancel travel documents (as opposed to the substantive status of Australian Citizenship) to limit their ability to travel.

So, what difference would it make to the Jihadist cause if the Australian government could revoke Australian Citizenship for those who are dual nationals?

In practice, it would likely be a very limited tool.

There is little or no public information which tells us whether or not the Jihadists about whom our security agencies are concerned are dual nationals. If they are not, the proposed change in the law would be irrelevant.

Then there’s the question of nature the “offence” that would lead to citizenship revocation and the process by which revocation would take place.

Nikolic targets”those who persist in associating themselves with terrorist causes” and writes about “letting our law enforcement and intelligence agencies act on the basis of reasonable suspicion”.

These are very loose tests and to adopt them would seriously weaken the certainty and status of Australian Citizenship.

Assuming for a moment that the citizenship of some dual nationals of concern in Australia could be revoked, this does not necessarily mean that they would leave Australia. One course open to them may be to rid themselves of their second citizenship by renouncing it so that they were no longer dual nationals. In some cases, foreign governments refuse to accept their own nationals back if the person concerned does not want to return voluntarily.

If the person is outside Australia when their citizenship is revoked, return to Australia is prevented, but the government already has some capacity to prevent this with denial of Australian travel documents. Either way, the individual would be free to pursue extremist causes and political violence elsewhere.

Nikolic cites the fact that some foreign governments, including the United Kingdom, have changed their citizenship law to use it against extremists. It is unclear whether this has made any substantive difference to extremist behaviour in the UK or elsewhere.

Australia is a country of immigration and Australian Citizenship has, since its inception in 1949, played an important role in integrating newcomers into society.  Easy deprivation of Australian Citizenship on loose criteria, without due process, would seriously devalue it. Why bother to become an Australian Citizen if it can be taken away on suspicion? Some communities would definitely feel targeted by such legislation and their sense of alienation would be increased rather than diminished.

The Australian government is right to be concerned about the activities of violent Jihadists and to be considering its options.

However, it would be very wise to consider carefully the efficacy of any changes to citizenship law, and possible collateral damage, before deciding to use revocation as a tool.

Prosecution, conviction and incarceration of those who have broken Australian law are likely to be much more effective weapons. Domestic programs to reduce the likelihood of radicalisation, as well as denial of travel documents to those seeking to travel abroad to pursue violent extremism, also have an important part to play.

Peter Hughes is a former Deputy Secretary, Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He is now Visiting Fellow, Crawford school of Public Policy, ANU.

This article first appeared in The Lowy Institute Interpreter.

[1] “Let’s Confront Passports to Terror”, Andrew Nikolic, page 12 , The Australian, 16 February 2015.

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