A guide to the Nationality and Borders Bill (ft. Cambridge SU)

“The general public needs to stand up and show them we won’t be blindsided”

CN: racism, xenophobia, potentially distressing story of death

On Sunday (23/01), a crowd of almost 100 people gathered on King’s Parade to protest the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill. The protest was organised by Tara Choudhury, the Cambridge SU BME Officer, along with Cambridge RE:action (Cambridge University Refugee Aid and Action). Those in attendance included a number of other SU Sabbatical Officers, as well as both students and wider Cambridge community members.

Organisations officially represented in the crowd included student activism groups such as Cambridge Climate Justice, Cambridge Defend Education, Demilitarise Cambridge, as well as the wider-community based Cambridge Stop the War. Also in attendance were representatives from student political organisations Cambridge University Labour Club and Cambridge University Marxist Society.

We spoke to Tara to understand more about the protest – and what she had to say got us a little worried.

Why you should be worried too

“You know, this is a direct impact on the very principles British citizenship was founded on.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill was described in a Facebook post from Tara’s SU account as “dangerous, illiberal legislation” which, if passed, will give the government the “power to revoke the citizenship of British nationals without notice on ‘public interest’ grounds.” Among other things, it also recommends changes to policy surrounding migrants and refugee asylum seekers – by criminalizing those that travel to the UK on unsanctioned routes.

Image credits: Tommy Gilhooly

Tara is particularly perturbed by clause nine of the Bill, which would allow for the government to remove British citizenship without notice in the interests of “national security,” “the relationship between the United Kingdom and another country,” or simply “the public interest.” 

An opinion piece authored by leading immigration barristers Raza Husain QC, Jason Pobjoy, and Eleanor Mitchell adds that “exercise of the deprivation power has a disproportionate impact on non-white British citizens,” noting that “the United Kingdom already has significantly more power to deprive an individual of their citizenship than any other G20 country.”

“You literally could be left stateless by this,” Tara continues. “[The Home Secretary] doesn’t have to justify why she’s revoked your citizenship as long as it’s for the public good.”

It’s clear as day to her – “[the Bill] will impact our daily lives.”

Who this affects most

“This bill in particular is racist legislation. It’s cruel. The way we discuss refugees is unacceptable. And I think this protest is about stressing the fact that we’re all human.”

Tara believes that “the people affected most by this, statistically, are people from India.” But it doesn’t end there – the Bill is “not only an attack on our citizenship – it’s been described by lawyers as the biggest assault on international refugee law and the rights of asylum seekers ever seen in the UK.”

In 2020 alone, 203 students of Indian (Asian or Asian British) descent were admitted into the University of Cambridge. The total number of students at Cambridge of Indian (Asian or Asian British) descent greatly exceeds that – and that doesn’t include the other BME groups that are disproportionately affected by the Bill too.

Just under 1 in 3 British students at Cambridge were from BME backgrounds. International students, of whom non-EU students alone make up about half the University’s tuition income, are also likely to be affected by the Bill.

The Good Law Project specified that clause nine of the Bill “will affect the citizenship of almost half of all Asian British people and two in five Black Britons.” Tara adds, “There’s a lot of us in Cambridge that aren’t white. The fact that so many of us – 40 per cent of us – that hold British citizenships could have theirs taken away without even being notified is terrifying.”

Why you should care – even if you don’t think you’re affected

Tara holds no misconceptions regarding the impact of a small group of university students on the UK government. As she says, “a one-off protest in Cambridge isn’t going to single-handedly change public policy.”

To her, “the most important thing to stress here is that this is a massively slippery slope. Everyone should be worried that their citizenship rights are being eroded. Whether you’re from a BME community or not, this should matter to anyone who’s concerned about their individual liberties and their rights.”

Image credits: Tara Choudhury

She points out similarities between the Bill and the Windrush scandal – which involved the unlawful detainment and deportation of second-generation immigrants.

“If we create a two-tiered system of citizenship in this country and we start treating people’s citizenship like something that can be revoked without notice if you weren’t born here, you can just be sent back to a country you might not have been to since you were five or six years old. And it’s just going to create more Windrush scandals.”

Equally important is solidarity and empathy – “we’re trying to see the world more compassionately, to reinstall some humanity – and I think most students should be on board with that.”

But it’s difficult to discredit protests as a tool for education, discussion, and raising awareness – and Tara intends to treat the Sunday protest as such. She expresses excitement at the idea of talking to people who’d stumbled on the protest and giving them “the chance to learn a little bit about something they may not have seen on the news.”

What happened at the protest

The crowd was filled with banners and placards, many of which were made at the banner making workshop the SU hosted on Friday evening in preparation for the protest. The protest began with a speech by Tara, where she said that the bill “terrifies” her. Quoting Hannah Arendt, she spoke of how citizenship is the “right to have rights” and claimed this bill would render people of colour “second class citizens” in the UK.

She continued: “For this government to attempt to quietly strip ethnic minorities of their civil liberties, to dictate who is more British, and who is less, to laugh in the faces of the Windrush generation who they failed and continue to fail to this day, is nothing short of evil.” Tara then passed the microphone to other protestors, after which the crowd marched down King’s Parade and through Market Square chanting slogans.

The slogans included “no borders, no nations, no racist deportations,” “Hey hey, ho ho, the fascist bill has got to go,” and “no hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.”

What protestors had to say

One speech, from a representative of Cambridge RE:action, stated that the process of seeking asylum is “already dangerous, traumatising, in some cases fatal: this government now seeks to make it illegal as well.” Calling the bill “cruel” and “inhumane”, they argued that the UK must take responsibility for “creat[ing]” the modern refugee crisis through its “history of war and neocolonialism.”

Image credits: Rebekah Treganna

Other speeches, which came both from students and Cambridge residents, called on protestors to “push back against the government’s climate of fear.” One called borders “inherently violent”, calling for “transnational solidarity” and stating that “liberation is not possible under the nation-state.”

A speaker affiliated with the Cambridge Marxist Society described the new bill as “not an isolated piece of legislation; this is tied to other draconian legislation that has been passed in [recently].” Here, they pointed to the recent Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which sparked the “Kill the Bill” protests last year, and characterized them as “anti-protest legislation.” The representative also spoke of the need for the Trade Union movement to incorporate migrant workers.

Particularly strong applause and cheers followed a speech from someone who described the experience of working in search and rescue on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2019. The volunteer worker described their experience of seeing “an eight-month-old stop breathing, and hear[ing] the scream of a mother who thought her child was dead” as “something you don’t easily forget.”

Image credits: Tommy Gilhooly

Protestors saw the bill not just as a national issue, but a local one too. One speech talked of the “complicity of universities” in immigration enforcement, whilst another pointed out that these policies are “not just enacted at borders but in our communities”, claiming there had been 164 visits by Home Office immigration officers to Cambridge since 2016. 

One anonymous speaker proposed that we “must communicate with our local community to ensure those affected have our solidarity and support.” The speaker pointed to the recent Glasgow street protest in May 2021 – which successfully prevented the detainment of two men by UK immigration Enforcement – arguing that it personifies how protest can push back against this “climate of fear.”

What you can do now

Tara signposts curious students to articles written by “human rights experts, refugee advocacy groups, and international lawmakers.” She added that it takes little time and effort for even the most overworked of students to understand the legislation by skimming through Amnesty International’s report on the Bill or the New Statesman’s article.

Image credits: Rebekah Treganna

What if you couldn’t attend? Fear not, Tara says, as you can take action on your own time. She directs people to the ‘Cambridge Convoy Refugee Action Group,’ a charity organisation that arranges regular weekend volunteer convoys from Cambridge to Calais and helps refugees around the globe. Solidarity is key – because there’s nothing restricting you from organising your own protest either.

As for longer-term change, Tara asserts, “I think this whole thing is political, which is a shame, because I don’t think human rights should be politicized. This protest has to be anti-Conservative just by virtue of the fact that they’re the ones pushing this bill through. But I’m here because I care about human rights, I care about refugees, and I care about anyone that could potentially be left stateless by racist legislation.”

She called for citizens to “vote out this government when the time comes so we don’t keep having to have these protests against these dangerous measures.” But change starts small – Tara urges you to start by spreading the word and having a conversation about these issues with your friends and family.

Cambridge RE:action’s first meeting this term is on Sunday (30/01); you can find details here. You can follow Tara Choudhury on Facebook here.

The Home Office was contacted for comment.

Featured image credits: Tommy Gilhooly

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