Are we seeing the return of colonial-era convict ships?

A pair of British-born 24-year-old twins are facing deportation to countries they have never visited. There's a dangerous historical parallel to this in British history

July 29, 2020
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From the seventeenth until the early twentieth centuries, several hundred thousand criminals were sent away to Australia, the Caribbean and America as part of the colonial-era policy of penal transportation. Crowded onto “convict ships” and sent away to lands they had never even visited, they were exiled from the communities and the country they had been born and raised in.

My own ancestors, a pair of twin brothers, were sent from Cornwall to Melbourne at the age of 12, for the crime of stealing small change. There, they was forced to make a new life for themselves, without family or community, or the real hope of ever seeing them again. This displacement was their punishment; the sentence was for life. Two hundred years later, another set of twin boys—Darrell and Darren Roberts, born in West London—are facing a similar fate, both threatened with deportation to two separate Caribbean countries they have never visited. The archaic, and much-derided policy of penal transportation has returned, it seems, throwing up urgent questions about the legal status of being born in the UK, and of having British citizenship.

In the cases of Darren and Darrell Roberts, the precarious status of being British-born becomes particularly clear. Many would assume that being born here would automatically make someone a British citizen. Certainly, it means that one is eligible to claim British citizenship. However, as has become apparent to these two young men, unless your parent is a British citizen at the time of your birth, your own citizenship is not automatic. Rather, that citizenship depends on a costly application being filed out and accepted. Until that happens, you are not officially a British citizen, even if you have a birth certificate showing that you have been born here—and even if you have no other citizenship. For Darren and Darrell Roberts, who were taken into state care at 13 when their mother died, and who never received citizenship as children or young adults as their parents and social services did not apply for it, this absence of paper work has led to both of them, now 24 and in prison, to face deportation on completion of their sentences.

A spokesperson for Ealing Council, whose care the twins were in, has said that its children’s services team had “repeatedly engaged with both Darren and Darrell” to allow them to apply for citizenship, but “neither of the young men signed the documentation to allow it to be processed.” Darren’s partner, however, has refuted this claim, stating that the council “definitely haven’t” done so.

But should a bureaucratic oversight mean that a British-born child or young adult should be vulnerable to permanent exile? Is it fair that British-born children should not be automatically British citizens, on account of the immigration status of their parents? Darrell Robert's lawyer, Andrew Sperling has stated that his defendant is British and currently serving his sentence in “a society which apparently believes in rehabilitation and supporting people to reintegrate into the community… This is what should be happening with this man. But instead, he's having to fight a complex, terrifying legal procedure.”

Another high-profile case that has brought into focus the precarious nature of citizenship is that of Shamina Begum. Although she had confirmed British citizenship (unlike the Roberts twins) and was also British-born, her citizenship was revoked after she joined ISIS as a 15-year-old and went to Syria. Though the health of Begum’s newborn son was at risk (he then died of preventable causes), the government famously forbade her from returning to the UK, leaving her stateless. Although she will now be allowed back into the country so that she can appeal the decision, that her citizenship was revoked at all is a deeply worrying development, once again bearing a striking similarity to the policy of penal transportation of the 1800s and 1900s.

This throwback to colonial-era policy suggests a regression to the values of this time, involving a political and legal bias against Black, Asian and minority ethnic people (particularly from working class backgrounds), and an implied tier system of citizenship on those grounds. Just as working class people were at greater risk of exile when the middle and upper classes were typically not in the 1800s and early 1900s, nowadays those from BAME, and often also poor backgrounds, are far more likely to face deportation when they have committed a crime, due to their parent’s immigration status at the time of their birth.

That a British-born child can be thought of as “less British” because his or her parents have not been granted citizenship—effectively creating a tier-system of citizenship—allows for gross inequality. That a young person can be punished with a lifetime exile from their country of birth on account of the nationality of their parents enshrines in law that some British people are valued less than others, and that being “British”—and all the legal protections that come with that—is impermanent if you come from a certain background. Penal transportation should have disappeared with the British empire, but it has not, along with many of the prejudices of that time. Being a “second-class citizen” is real and actively perpetuated by our current legal system and the hostile environment it sustains.