People have been stopped from working or studying in the UK because the government insists they cannot be granted British citizenship until they attend a ceremony – despite the events being suspended for months during the coronavirus pandemic.
Over-18s whose applications to become a British citizen have been successful must attend a ceremony administered in the local authority by a registrar, during which they make an oath or pledge.
However, as a result of coronavirus restrictions, in-person citizenship ceremonies were suspended in March. The ceremonies have recently restarted across local authorities, but campaigners warn that a severe backlog has built up.
The Home Office is being urged to temporarily suspend the requirement to attend citizenship ceremonies in order to ensure thousands of people are not left in limbo.
In one case, a care leaver applied for citizenship at the age of 17 because social services had failed to do so previously on her behalf. She received a positive decision earlier this year, but she is still waiting for a ceremony. In the meantime she cannot work, study or open a bank account – forcing her to continue to rely on her local council during the pandemic.
A letter sent on Monday to the Home Office from Amnesty International UK and the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens (PRCBC) called on Home Secretary Priti Patel to “immediately” introduce a temporary suspension of the requirement to attend a citizenship ceremony – adding that this move should have been taken “long before now”.
The letter warns that citizenship provides one’s right of abode and full voting rights, and is of “particular significance” to a person’s sense of security, identity and belonging in the UK.
It raises concern about cases where delay may mean that a child born to the applicant is born without British citizenship, and where it affects members of the Windrush generation, who have been offered citizenship as a remedy for their treatment by the Home Office in the past but now face a delay in obtaining it.
Solange Valdez-Symonds, director and solicitor at the PRCBC, told The Independent: “People – many of whom have already waited an unconscionable length of time for recognition as British citizens – have been delayed in that recognition because the Home Office has insisted on them attending ceremonies while the pandemic has meant these could not go ahead.
“Now people are stuck in backlogs even while the resumption of ceremonies is not back to normal.
“The Home Office could have prevented this and can now resolve it by exercising its power not to insist on a ceremony. But instead it is choosing not to act and leaving many people still excluded from their citizenship rights with all the insecurity that goes with that.”
Jessica, 18, from Southwark in south London, who applied for citizenship aged 17, received a positive decision on her application at the start of August but was told she wasn’t able to attend a ceremony – and is still waiting to be allocated one.
The college student, who was born in the UK to a Ghanaian mother and Zimbabwean father, told The Independent that not having a British passport was making it more difficult to find part-time work and enrol onto college courses.
“It’s harder for me to get jobs. You always have to put down whether you have a passport or not on the job application forms. It seems like I’m not being taken seriously because I don’t have full citizenship and that I’m treated differently because of it,” she said.
“It also took longer for me to get into college because I didn’t have a proper ID. When I was applying this summer I needed to have it sorted by September and it took two months, which made me really anxious.”
Jessica, whose mother had been trying to apply for her and her brother’s citizenship for two years but struggled to save the £1,012 fee, said she was “so excited and relieved” when she got the positive decision in August – but that now she felt “angry and disheartened”.
“I don’t think its necessary. I was born here. I’ve never left the country. It’s not fair. I was so excited when I found out they’d granted me citizenship. I’m so close to getting it, and now it’s been put on pause. The fact that I have to go through all of this is just ridiculous to me,” she said.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, of Amnesty International UK, said: “Recognition of people’s British citizenship should not be delayed by insisting on ceremonies that have not been provided due to the pandemic.
“Once again, the Home Office is simply overlooking the impact its policies and practices have upon people, including in this instance where doing so may continue to leave people excluded and insecure in this country despite being entitled to its citizenship.”
The Local Government Association, which represents local authorities in England, said councils had been unable to offer ceremonies in the same way as before the lockdown, with some unable to provide public ceremonies or only able to conduct these with significantly reduced numbers.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Local authorities are responsible for running citizenship ceremonies. In order to follow social distancing guidance during the pandemic, local authorities paused in-person ceremonies, but some offered virtual ceremonies.
“We have confirmed with local authorities that all sites have now recommenced standard in-person ceremonies, in line with current Government guidelines, and many are also offering virtual ceremonies.
“We are working with local authorities to dispatch any outstanding citizenship certificates as swiftly as possible.”