People who successfully apply for British citizenship are seldom asked to recount their stories. They simply carry on with their lives. But how does it really feel to go through the process of becoming a British citizen? What does achieving citizenship mean to those who gain it? How does it affect their sense of identity and belonging?
To answer these questions for my new book, Britishness, Belonging and Citizenship I spoke to 30 successful applicants about their experiences.
Some of them are from former British colonies, while others are European nationals who decided to make the UK their home. Some came on work visas, others were asylum seekers. Some had pre-existing links with the UK, while others had yet to developed strong associations with their new home.
For most, the legal process of applying for citizenship proved difficult. It was complex and expensive. Those from outside Europe struggled to meet bureaucratic requirements – particularly in acquiring long term settlement status (indefinite leave to remain).
As Brexit looms, European nationals in the UK are likely to lose their rights to free movement. Long term residents will probably be faced with new and additional requirements if they want to stay. There is much to be learned from current challenges in order to anticipate future problems.
The present lack of certainty can also be viewed against previous exclusions from free movement within Britain, as experienced by former colonial nationals. Some of the stories in the book are about the exclusion of East African Asians from the UK in the 1960s and 1970s.
Veena was a child at that time and recalls the struggles of her parents and her uncle to enter and live in the UK (initially in Leicester and then in Bristol) and then to gain legal status here. She also remembers she felt safe in England, happy to have escaped the racial tension in Uganda.
She told me:
I missed my toys. I had these dolls I would teach in pretend play. Each one had a name and I still remember each one of the dolls by name and face. I had to leave all of those behind when we came here. We could carry nothing.
I am British of course, but I know the British government was not welcoming at all to my parents and we felt very let down for years. We were not refugees. We had British passports and yet we were made to feel like refugees.
Although citizenship pathways are highly individualistic and varied, it is possible to identify patterns in policies and procedures – and their effects on people’s lives.
In researching my book, I found that for most of the people I spoke to, the length of time spent in the UK is the single most important factor for generating feelings of belonging. Yet another common experience is that applying for British citizenship means delays, financial expense and anxiety about procedures and outcomes – all of which appear to chip away at those feelings of belonging.
For many, the citizenship journey is a protracted form of immigration control which lasts right up until the citizenship ceremony.
There are stories of successful citizenship applicants. But not everyone has ready access to the security offered by citizenship. Unskilled migrants have little opportunity in the immigration system for gaining secure status.
For some, immigration controls create categories of entrance and institutionalise uncertainty. Routes available to long-term resident migrants are far from being fair and transparent, and are also fraught with uncertainty. Lack of information and legal advice is a recurring issue. Metin, of Turkish origin, said there was a lack of “reliable information” with no phone numbers included on the letters and emails he received during during the application process.
Even the migrants who successfully become citizens are forced to negotiate barriers and uncertainty. But why should they have to overcome such barriers? Why not have systemic safeguards in place to ensure simple and effective legal procedures? Why not make support for applicants more widely available?
In the absence of such safeguards, the missing element in most people’s citizenship stories is that of supportive and collaborative civil society organisations and groups. At the moment, there are very few organisations in the UK that can provide support to aspiring long term residents and their battles with bureaucracy. These are lives caught up in admin and paperwork, like that of Adaoma, a 54-year-old Nigerian-born physiotherapist now based in Bristol.
She told me:
For me, citizenship is my blue suitcase which I lugged from one meeting to another, filled with papers, birth certificate, mortgage loan papers, you name it … My whole life in a box, for every lawyers’ meeting. And of course, the lawyer always wanted the one bit of paper I did not have that time. It was mad, the amount of papers I had in that box for years. I still have that blue suitcase, but I do not take it on trips.