Challenging the UK’s Problematic Immigrant ‘Good Character’ Clause

As a young Muslim fleeing war-torn Africa, Aaden* was not alone.


When, later that year, he arrived at the port of Dover in Kent, he was taken to an asylum camp where he was confined with other minors for three months, before eventually making his way to London, where he had an uncle living. Soon after, he applied for British citizenship.

Nine months after he made the application, he received a letter from the Home Office. He was, deemed the letter, to be “not of good character”. Apparently, it was “not conducive to the public good” to grant him naturalization.

Aaden, who is African-born, and now resides in the UK, though his wife and daughter live separately in central Asia, is just one of the 5,525 immigrants who were denied a passport in 2016 due to the rather vague, “good character cause.”

You might ask, what constitutes “bad character”, then, in the Home Office’s eyes?

Well, obsessive drinking will do the trick; as well as gambling, divorce, prostitution, religion and “eccentricity, including beliefs, appearance and lifestyle.” It is due to these reasons that 44% of hopeful immigrants were declined British citizenship in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

In 2009, a new legislation brought in by the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, aimed to somewhat categorize the terms migrants were being judged on. However, as the Immigration Bill passed through Parliament, MPs decided that it was “prudent to continue to apply the character test…via discretion [of the Home Office] rather than by establishing specific requirements in primary legislation”. Currently, the criteria are vague enough for the decision-maker to still refuse residency, even if they have doubts that are not on the current list.

According to Nisha Kapoor, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, and Kasia Narkowicz, a post-doctoral researcher, both at the University of York: “There is no official legal definition of what constitutes ‘Bad character’.” 

Appeals against citizenship refusal, heard in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, (which, set up to deal with national security deportation cases, allows the state to present “secret evidence” to the court, which those appealing are not aware of), have argued that applicants should be “fully informed of the conditions against which they are being tried.” Up until now, they have been mostly unsuccessful.

Now for a department under intense pressure by the government to get immigration numbers down, the “good character” cause is more an excuse to increase refusals than a valid case. All it takes are unspecified “doubts about their character”, and a state official can turn someone down. Since 2012, the number of applications thrown out under the “good character” cause has more than doubled.

The problem with this is that the Home Office is taking minor wrongdoings too seriously, while not really telling the applicants what went so wrong. This is true in cases like Aaden’s. According to a study by Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, an advice service, the number of youngsters failing the application test because of small offenses committed by their parents is increasing steadily. Even a skipped tax bill gets you quickly off the list. 

So yes, as Theresa May aims to implement with her “Hostile Environment policies”, the number of passports issued needs to drop. But surely the government can think of a better, fairer, and safer reason than this. 

Right now, it seems officials are working harder to find reasons to keep needed workers out than seriously fighting border terrorism. It’s hard to call citizenship less than a lottery, and an expensive one at that: where the “tickets” can cost well over £1,200 pounds.

For Aaden, things are only becoming more difficult. His house has been raided by the police on several occasions. He questions the authenticity of their claims: on one occasion that they arrested him, the charges were dropped completely three days later. On another raid they took his refugee travel card, his only travel identification. To this day, he remains without a passport or recognized nationality of any kind.

For all this, you have to ask, what has he really done? In reality, he is just another victim of indeterminate and insufficient selection methods by the British Home Office. He is not the first and he most certainly will not be the last. 

Soon enough, the Home Office will have to admit its wrongdoings. Under the newly elected Home Secretary Sajid Javid, some people are praying there’ll be change. Maybe there will. But before any celebrations are due, the application process has to be revised, and processes that unrightfully class migrants as “locally promiscuous”, or aim to decline them purely due to their country of origin will have to go. Mr. Javid, the first ethnic Muslim to hold public office, and a Pakistani immigrant, will hope to associate better with the people he’s dealing with. As he told the Sunday Telegraph in April, “that could be my Mum…My Dad…my uncle…it could be me.”

Let’s hope that serves as a fitting reminder to him, for the sake of people like Aaden.

After the events of recent weeks, one might also wonder whether the Home Office, of all the departments, is best suited to judge others on their good character.

*Real name withheld

Featured Image credit to Chris Fleming under CC

This op-ed was submitted by Matteo Di Maio, a High School Student from Cambridge, New Zealand who has lived in Britain for two years.



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