The UK government is making noises about potentially stripping British people of their citizenship if they join conflicts abroad. But while the proposal is aimed at deterring people from joining Islamic State and other militant groups, our research found support for taking citizenship away even if Britons fight in foreign lands for causes more aligned with UK interests.
Little distinction is made between motives and, at a minimum, those we surveyed in May 2014 wanted the UK government to monitor citizens who have gone abroad to take up arms for a variety of causes. Many wanted UK citizenship of such fighters to be revoked fully.
Results from the survey suggest that home secretary Theresa May is on firm ground in proposing further legislation in order to curtail the involvement of UK citizens taking such actions, even if it means stopping people fighting for what many in the UK believe is a noble cause.
The idea that Britons are involved in perpetuating acts of terrible violence abroad, as appears to be the case with the horrific beheading of reporter James Foley, of course leads to anger and soul searching. But there is a long history of Britons travelling abroad to fight for foreign armies and groups. Their motives range from desire for fame, fortune, or ideological identification with a cause. A number of ex-servicemen travelled to the war-torn former Yugoslavia some 20 years ago, for example, where they fought alongside Bosnian muslims, an action some soldiers undertook for money and adventure and some in the UK saw as justified.
It is not earthshattering to find that Britons oppose any leniency for those fighting alongside the militia of the Islamic State, particularly given the heinous acts that are being reported, but should those sentiments extend to all Brits fighting abroad?
Our survey was conducted in May 2014, when the conflict in Syria was characterised by an uprising against the brutally oppressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
We asked 4,027 people for their views on what should happen to British citizens who chose to fight in Syria, given that the government had asked them not to.
In response, 42% said their citizenship should be taken away and that they shouldn’t ever be allowed to return to the UK. Only 17% said nothing should be done and 21% said these fighters should be allowed to return to the UK but must be monitored by the authorities if they did.
Britons evidently were not comfortable with citizens travelling to Syria to fight, perhaps because of how they perceived those involved in the country’s civil war. Although the frame of news reports in May 2014 was anti-al-Assad, the numbers of our respondents who believed that opponents of the Syrian President were Islamic radicals outstripped the numbers who believed the anti-al-Assad forces were moderates by more than three to one.
Even when the cause was more obviously laudable, respondents remained ambivalent. Elsewhere in the survey, we asked what they thought about Brits travelling to Nigeria to fight against Boko Haram, the extremist group responsible for hundreds of deaths and most infamous for holding large groups of people hostage and forcing them to convert to Islam. The group is clearly hostile to the UK and is known for its lack of respect for human rights.
Yet many of our respondents were in favour of taking citizenship away from people who went to fight in Nigeria – against Boko Haram. The largest group – a total of 33% of respondents – backed such a move and 27% believed Brits who fought against Boko Haram should be monitored on their return.
When asked what should be done about their compatriots fighting against pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, 35% of respondents said their citizenship should be taken away and 25% said they should be monitored on their return. The “do nothing” option is embraced by less than one in five respondents across the three situations.
All this suggests that the public will back the government if it tries to rein in British nationals fighting for other armies, even when their interests may coincide with those of the UK.
These findings raise questions about how such a policy could be implemented. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line and our survey results show that the public would prefer to err on the side of caution, even if they end up restricting the rights of people fighting against the kind of militant groups they oppose. Their views are similar, whether Brits are fighting for or against Islamist extremists.
We therefore have to ask how far that view stretches. Many UK citizens have dual nationality with friendly EU nations, such as Greece and Cyprus, where military service is compulsory. Should they have their passports taken away? It’s clear that legislation on this issue will need to be very carefully crafted.