Australia’s citizenship-stripping legislation may be doing more harm than good
8 Aug 2019| and

Between December 2015 and February 2019, 12 Australian dual citizens were stripped of their citizenship under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 because of their involvement with terror groups. As the provisions of the act are automatically applied, many more Australian dual citizens may be affected. At a recent hearing conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security as part of its review of the legislation, a Home Affairs spokesperson said flatly, ‘All we know is the ones that we know about. We don’t know the ones that we don’t know about.’

The core argument for citizenship revocation is that the person is deemed to have breached their social contract; they have rejected the values, rules and norms of Australia, and therefore shouldn’t benefit from membership of its citizenry. The revocation is meant to act as a punishment to the individual, a deterrent to those thinking of engaging in similar behaviour, and a means of mitigating terrorism risks.

Understandably, citizenship revocation, and the accompanying ‘getting tough’ on national security and ‘citizenship is a privilege’ narratives, resonate with many Australians.

However, there are some fundamental flaws in the thinking that underpins Australia’s citizenship revocation legislation.

Following the emergence of Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in June 2014, several countries introduced administrative measures stripping those who had travelled to Iraq and Syria of their citizenship. But there’s little empirical evidence to support the idea that citizenship revocation played a role in dissuading people from not travelling to Iraq and Syria to join the various jihadist groups. Intuitively, those who are interested in joining violent extremist groups are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of having their citizenship revoked.

Rather than acting as a punishment, losing citizenship may serve to highlight an individual’s commitment to ‘the cause’. In certain circumstances, revocation may give individuals a special status among their cadre of extremists for having made an extra sacrifice.

Citizenship revocation under the Australian Citizenship Act affects only individuals who have, or are entitled to, another citizenship. Australians who have Australian citizenship can’t be stripped of their citizenship because that would make them stateless, which would be a breach of international law.

Having two categories of citizenship feeds the jihadist narrative that Western government are institutionally racist and Islamophobic. In practice, these measures may disproportionately affect people of Muslim faith, as it’s thought that most dual-citizen Australian foreign fighters either come from Muslim-majority countries or have parents who emigrated to Australia from those countries.

Over almost two decades, Australian local authorities, police and community activists have worked to address concerns about discrimination in minority communities. Their efforts have helped foster an environment in which people feel comfortable discussing issues and individuals of concern with the authorities.

Despite these successes, policymakers should still be worried about the growing mistrust of the authorities among certain minority communities, primarily the Muslim community, and their sense of structural discrimination and Islamophobia. Citizenship revocation has most likely fuelled those communities’ concerns.

One unintended consequence of citizenship revocation is that it may discourage people from cooperating with the authorities. Arguably, if there’s a fear someone may lose their citizenship and get deported, individuals are less likely to cooperate.

Since 9/11, Australia has developed a robust counterterrorism regime. A central component of the regime is a suite of programs and initiatives at the federal, state and territory levels that are aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism. Australians working in that field have become global leaders. This strategy has provided local, state and federal authorities with the necessary legislative, operational and practical tools to work with individuals to help them disengage from violent extremism and ensure they don’t pose a threat to Australians and Australian interests.

The threat of citizenship revocation undermines the counterterrorism regime, specifically the disengagement and deradicalisation programs.

Knowing where violent extremists are enables Australia’s security and intelligence services to mitigate the risk that they pose. Over the past 18 years, successive Australian governments have adopted a range of measures to deal with violent extremists. These measures continue to result in the disruption of terrorist plots. Not allowing these individuals to return would place an added burden on our security services to keep track of the movements of radicalised ex-Australians outside of Australia.

If Australians who have travelled to Iraq and Syria aren’t allowed to return to Australia, they will likely seek new places from which they can continue to propagate their violent extremist ideas. History has shown that terrorists tend to establish a presence in fragile and weak states where they can exploit local conditions, including lax controls and corruption. Given that terrorist groups like IS have franchises and affiliates around the world, there are many places where fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria can find sanctuary and continue to propagate their ideas and incite others to commit violence.

As the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security continues its review of the operation, effectiveness and implications of the citizenship-stripping provisions of the Citizenship Act, it needs to set aside overly simplistic, transactional views of citizenship revocation. It needs to consider promoting public confidence in the effectiveness of Australia’s counterterrorism arrangements. It also ought to consider the second-order effects that this legislation is having on Australia’s counterterrorism efforts. Finally, it needs to consider the harmful impacts that ‘citizenship is not a right’ arguments have on social cohesion in Australia.