Britain’s hostile immigration laws were recently laid bare by the Windrush scandal, which revealed how often elderly Commonwealth citizens were being wrongly deported, detained and denied rights. The same set of laws are still having profound consequences on the children of fathers from Britain’s Overseas Territories.
Under current laws, children ‘born out of wedlock’ in British Overseas Territories – mostly small Caribbean islands – are prevented from gaining UK citizenship, a situation described as discrimination and a possible breach of human rights laws, by UK parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has called for a resolution.
The British Overseas Territories (BOT) are 14 former colonies that elected to stay under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom, rather than declare independence. They include the Caribbean islands of Monserrat, Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.
The majority of people from these islands are black. They were among those who came to the UK as part of the Windrush generation – people who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries to plug post-war labour shortages.
Under current laws, children born before 2006 cannot inherit citizenship from fathers from the British Overseas Territories, unless their parents were married.
Until quite recently, similar rules applied across the board. No child born outside marriage could inherit British citizenship from their father, only from their mothers. But after years of campaigning by activists, the Immigration Act of 2014 was passed, which allowed children born out of wedlock to inherit citizenship if their father is from mainland Britain. However, the law change excluded children with fathers from the British Overseas Territories.
In some instances, families have been separated. This is the case for Trent Miller, a 48-year-old actor and cinematographer from New York. Trent’s late father, Abraham, was born in Monserrat, and moved to London in the early 1960s as part of the Windrush generation. While in the UK he worked as a bus driver, and had a relationship with a woman, with whom he had three children. Later, Abraham moved to New York City to study. There he met an American woman, who gave birth to Trent in 1968.
Abraham held British Overseas Territory (OT) Citizenship, and right of abode in the UK. British OT citizenship can be passed down from parent to child, but this isn’t the case for Trent because his parents never married.
‘These archaic laws deem that a man can only be a father to a legitimatechild! This is “gender discrimination”, and the discrimination is two-fold as I’m also penalized for my parents not marrying,’ Trent says.
Moreover, since 2002, people from nearly all the British Overseas Territories have the automatic right to be made full British citizens, under changes to the nationality law. So, if Trent’s parents were married, or it was his mother who was from Monserrat, not his father, he could be a British citizen right now.
‘It is inconceivable that today punishment for being born out of wedlock is still on the law books,’ says Tabitha Sprague, an activist who was instrumental in reforming the 2014 Immigration Act. ‘For illegitimate kids, the view is they aren’t really British, they belong to their mothers and wherever the mothers are from.’
While the number of people affected by these laws is fairly low – in the hundreds or early thousands – it is still important to fix the situation, activists say.
Trent has strong ties to the UK. He is close with his British half-siblings, and he also has aunts, uncles and cousins living in London. They see each other about twice a year through transatlantic visits. However, Trent’s visits to the UK can be a painful reminder his heritage is unrecognized.
‘I feel shut-out from claiming my father’s citizenship,’ he says. ‘If I go to the UK to be with my siblings, I am treated as a tourist, my stay is limited. My right to family life is restricted.’
UK lawmakers said BOT citizens were omitted from the Immigration Act of 2014 because there was not enough time to consult the British Overseas Territories when the law was being drawn up.
‘I don’t know why they didn’t feel it necessary to consult the territories, that seems rather odd to me,’ Janice Panton MBE, the UK Representative for the Government of Montserrat, tells New Internationalist.
‘This is not a good enough excuse,’ agrees Tabitha. ‘I think it’s racist, I definitely feel this aspect.’
‘Black kids make up the majority of the British Overseas Territories. We are just as much a part of the UK as British mainlanders. Yet there is this unequal system,’ says Trent. ‘It really treats these children who were born out of wedlock as second class citizens.’
Earlier this year, the UK parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is chaired by former acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, filed a report and letter urging the government’s Home Office to fix anomalies in the citizenship laws.
The Committee states the treatment of British Overseas Territories children possibly breaks the laws of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The report said: ‘Such discrimination should not be allowed to persist, we consider it unacceptable that discrimination in acquiring British nationality persists (including for British Overseas Territories citizenship) depending on whether a person’s father or mother was a British Overseas Territories citizen, or whether or not their parents were married.’
It is not clear whether the Home Office is taking action – a spokesperson declined to give comment to New Internationalist either on the work it is doing or the issue or the potential timelines involved.
‘There’s just no urgency to change this,’ says Tabitha. ‘People like Trent, they’re waiting, they want to be back with their families.’