Revoking the citizenship of dual Australian nationals fighting in the Middle East or plotting terrorist attacks at home is a dangerous idea and it runs against the free and democratic values we are supposedly defending.

It is estimated that around 100 Australians are fighting in Syria and Iraq, with approximately 40% – 50% holding dual citizenship.  The government’s announcement and proposed legislation will surely resonate with a large section of Australians, tapping into the latent, yet easily aroused ‘good riddance’ sentiment, while it also presents the government as being tough on terror.  However, a closer look at what is proposed presents worrying consequences at home and abroad.

(L-R) Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Immigration minister Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Philip Ruddock speak during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 26, 2015.  (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
(L-R) Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Immigration minister Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Philip Ruddock speak during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Tuesday, May 26, 2015. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Firstly, the determination of guilt will no longer reside with the courts, but with the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, currently Peter Dutton.  Furthermore, the weight of evidence required to determine guilt will not be as strong as is needed in a court and someone’s citizenship could potentially be revoked based on unscrutinised intelligence data.  This decision making process undermines the long established separation of the executive, judicial and legislative in Australia, a system we pride ourselves on.

The Minister of Immigration and Border Protection already wields a tremendous amount of arbitrary power over non-residents including asylum seekers and under the proposed legislation, the Minister of the day will be able to, essentially, determine guilt and dispense punishment without challenge.  The sole ‘check and balance,’ or appeal for the alleged terrorist or terrorist supporter, is a three level judicial review (AAT, Federal Court, High Court), though how he or she will be able to access this from outside Australia is unclear.

In addition to the punishment of the individual, revoking citizenship will lead to a break up of families and communities.  The examples from Britain, of young women travelling abroad to marry IS fighters and recent reports of young Australians regretting their decisions and wishing to return, is an example of how the ‘never to return’ mentality could exacerbate pain and suffering within already traumatised families and communities, especially if young people change their mind, as they inevitably do.  Radicalisation is recognised as a process of education, warped as it is, therefore it is reasonable to assume that some people may eventually unlearn the twisted ideologies and no longer want to fight for IS.  They must of course be punished if they return, though in a transparent, just and orderly court system, not at the behest of a Minister.

By removing the citizenship of a dual Australian national fighting in Syria or Iraq, we ensure they can never return.  This in turn passes the responsibility to the people, communities and governments or Syria, Iraq or any other country they end up in.  It becomes somebody else’s problem.  Countries and communities that are fighting against the spread of IS and are the direct victims of terror themselves, will be left to deal with those whom Australia deems to dangerous to return.  If those suspected of supporting, financing or conducting terrorism were tried in Australian courts and subsequently imprisoned they could cause no further harm, to the citizens of Syria, Iraq or Australia.  Casting them adrift does not solve the problem – it only shifts it somewhere else.

Finally, by stripping alleged terrorists of their dual citizenship, Australia is leaving them at the mercy of their sole nationality and potentially, if convicted of terrorism offences, the possibility of capital punishment.  In recent months the Australian government has been outspoken in its opposition to the death penalty, however the proposed legislation could expose once dual Australian nationals to execution.  The list of countries in the region which permit dual citizenship and maintain the death penalty includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, United States, Egypt, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

While the discussion is, for now, focused on the fate of dual nationals, there is a push within government to extend the legislation, to cover those who are eligible for dual citizenship and even Australian born, sole citizens.  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop raised the obvious question in cabinet discussions: which country would grant citizenship to someone Australia deemed a terrorist risk?  Additionally, moves to revoke the citizenship of sole Australian nationals would leave a person stateless and exposed to a lifetime in detention without due process.  Sadly, this outcome has precedent in Australia, for dozens of asylum seekers currently being held indefinitely in immigration detention.

Behind all the tough talk and chest thumping, the message is that the government (and opposition) wants to keep Australians safe.  Revoking citizenship may make us feel safer, though I am not convinced that disrupting our judicial processes, exacerbating the existing trauma and distrust within ethnic and religious communities, and passing the buck to other countries will actually make us any safer.