What meaning does Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British passport have if the government won’t help her?

·4-min read
What meaning does Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s British passport have if the government won’t help her?

As Richard Ratcliffe nears the end of his third week of hunger strike outside the Foreign Office in his desperate attempt to get this government to actually do something concrete to get his wife, Nazanin, out of Iran instead of back in prison, I have been wondering what on earth Nazanin’s British passport means.

Indeed, what meaning do the British passports of any of us who were not born in the UK – or have parents who weren’t born here – really have?

I’m going to stop being mealy-mouthed about this and spell this out: what does it mean to those of us who have foreign names and are not white? Are we still considered British?

Nazanin’s ghastly situation has gone on for so long – yet this government’s inaction and lack of feeling towards her family’s situation makes it feel increasingly like they don’t consider her British “enough” for her release to be a priority.

Our government owes the Iranian government money. There is no debate or argument about that. What stops them paying it back and getting her out?

For too long they have used the fact that she is a “dual national” as an excuse to not be brave and fight for her. Yet plenty of Brits are dual nationals – Boris Johnson himself was born in the US and had American citizenship, as well as British, right up until 2016. Dual nationality doesn’t make you any less British – or at least, it shouldn’t.

Have you ever read the blurb on the back of the cover of a British passport? I got my British passport when I was 26 – and it was a huge deal. The first thing I did was to read the blurb. Mine says this: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.

Why does this not apply to Nazanin Zagari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Mehran Raoof; all British Iranians, arbitrarily detained by the Iranian government?

I swore an oath to the Queen in the presence of a solicitor in order to get my British passport. I was very glad to do so if it meant I had her “assistance and protection”. I had been officially a stateless person; a refugee, then got “leave to remain” in the UK – legal status in the country that had become my home. “Leave to remain” alone is an incredible relief to anyone who has been a refugee. I was personally present once when family friends got their “leave to remain” status confirmed, and the joy was indescribable. “You may call this place home”, is what it means.

Getting a British passport brought me a whole new sense of relief and belonging. It’s not just a document: it’s keys to your home, it’s your name on the deeds.

I once visited the Calais refugee camp and spoke to a 15-year-old Afghan boy. Never had I been so thankful for my parents’ insistence that I learned Farsi, and that I remained bilingual after the UK became our home. It meant I could speak to this young lad in his native Dari (which is very similar to Farsi, with minor differences). It’s like someone from London talking to a Geordie.

“They tell me you were a refugee too,” this lad said. “Yup,” I told him. “So you have a British passport?” His eyes were as wide as if he’d found out I had a holiday home on Mars. “Yes”, I told him – “wow” was his response.

I have never been in the dire position that he had been – in a camp wearing donated clothes and away from family – but I understood his desperate wish to have a British passport. I always looked at the UK queue longingly at airports as I stood in the non-EU line, with my blue refugee travel document.

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I was booted out of France once, when I was 15, because they did not accept my travel document at passport control. I’d gone to have a holiday with a friend – my first without my parents. I was full of excitement; but the moment the French border guards saw my passport at Nice airport, they frogmarched me to a room which said “police” on the door. I was shouted at in French for a while by scary men in smart uniforms and guns, then they stuck a huge label on my suitcase which said “REFUGEE” and put back on the same plane I had just arrived in.

Not an experience comparable, of course, to the young chap I met in Calais, but traumatic nonetheless. Once I got my British passport, when I went to France, I flashed it triumphantly at the poor soul tasked with inspecting it, as if to say, “just try it, just try it with my British one!”

I believed the blurb. I believed I was protected – but as I see Richard Ratcliffe face another freezing, wet weekend, I wonder if I am just totally naive and that “assistance and protection” simply wouldn’t apply to me if I needed it.

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