Removing citizenship from terrorists is fraught with difficulties

As we continue to freak out about what to do with those of our citizens who stupidly chose to leave the comforts of our lands to join terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ), Al Shabaab and others, or planned terrorist acts in our backyards, we still need to follow our laws and respect our various charters and constitutions.  Make no mistake, these people are terrorists and guilty of associating with other terrorists, irrespective of what they did or did not do while ‘over there’ or in our countries and must be punished in accordance with whatever laws we already have on the books.  I am no fan of ‘just bring them home’ and reintegrate them into our societies or just ‘de-radicalise’ them.  Nevertheless, it is really hard to collect evidence overseas or domestically that will stand the very real and very justified high standards of most of our courts: that is after all what separates us from the terrorists.

I guess that faced with the aforementioned difficulties and public disgust/demand for justice, some nations are proposing ‘solutions’ that may satisfy such demands on the surface but which are in reality very problematic and may cause more harm than good.  My dear friends in Australia appear to be going down that road.

The Australian Prime Minister stated the other day that his government was considering stripping the citizenship of residents, even if they were born in Australia.  But that is not the end of it.  Normally, a country can elect to remove your citizenship if you have another one on which you can fall back: rendering someone stateless is frowned upon.   What the Aussie leader is proposing is to remove citizenship from those who only have one (i.e. Australian) where “they could ‘reasonably’ be expected to gain citizenship in another country through their parents or grandparents”.  Read that again. Australia might take away your Australian status and force you to find another citizenship tied to that of your parents or grandparents (or great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, depending on how long your family has been in country).  I am guessing there is no guarantee you will be granted such citizenship.

Is this even legal?  There will definitely be many, many challenges over this.  What if you cannot obtain such ‘familial’ citizenship?  What then?  Are you forced to wander airport terminals a la Tom Hanks in The Terminal??  I hope not.

I get why PM Scott Morrison is pissed off.  Australia has been hit with a disproportionate number of Islamist extremist plots and attacks since 9/11 (probably significantly more than Canada on a per capita basis).  And he may be right that communities are not doing enough to stop radicalisation to violence or report concerns to the intelligence services and police.  But this is a solution that is wrong-headed.

Deporting those born in Australia may ‘feel good’ but it does precisely nothing to stop terrorism in that country (aside, of course from getting rid of one terrorist).  These criminals radicalised in Australia since that is the only nation they have known.  Punting one or two does not undermine the radicalisation conveyor belt: others will replace those removed.  Different actions – investigations, working with communities, trust building, etc. – are required to stem the flow at source.

Besides, is is right to deport someone to a land they know nothing of?  I am third-generation Polish/Ukrainian Canadian.  Were I to do something awful should Canada send me to a country I have never lived in, where I do not speak the language and where I am not guaranteed a welcome, let alone citizenship?  Would Poland and/or Ukraine even accept me (Australia may want to look into international law in this regard)?

We had a similar debate years ago in Canada over gang members who were from Jamaican families.  The government wanted to deport them to the Caribbean even though some had probably been born here.  In any event, getting rid of one gangbanger does nothing to the problem of why we have gangs in the first place in Canada.

So, no, this is not a good strategy for my friends Down Under to adopt.  Counter terrorism and counter radicalisation will continue to challenge us and we need to get smarter at what we do and how we do it, from early identification and intervention to investigation, arrest, trial, incarceration and in-prison programming.  Deportation is not a solution, no matter how much it appeals to the ‘base’.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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