The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) has upheld the decision of the Home Office to refuse to grant British citizenship to four relatives of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad.
All four applicants in the case of LA, MA, RA and SAA v Secretary of State for the Home Department were members of the immediate family of Rifaat Al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle.
The applicants were one of Rifaat’s wives, her two sons and another of his sons from another marriage.
Rifaat Al-Assad is notorious for his prominent position in the regime of his brother Hafez Al-Assad in the 1970s and 1980s.
He has often been termed “the Butcher of Hama” for his role in the massacre of 40,000 Syrians in Hama in 1982.
The Commission found that the decision to refuse to grant the family members citizenship was lawful as it was in the public interest, namely that it would adversely affect the UK’s international relations.
During the proceedings, it emerged that the Home Office had sought the advice of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) about granting citizenship to the applicants.
Noting how the Assad family and regime were “inextricably intertwined”, the FCO recommended the applications be refused as granting citizenship to close relatives of Bashar would
- harm UK interests
- undermine UK government policy of seeking to put pressure on the Assad regime
- undermine the UK government’s influence and standing with opposition groups
- send signals that the UK was seeking to normalise relations with the Assad regime
- attract ‘considerable negative media, parliamentary, NGO, and international criticism, including, potentially, by contrasting [that decision] with HMG’s perceived approach to Syrian refugees more widely’.
The FCO also advised that granting them citizenship might further encourage extremism targeted at the UK.
The Home Office ultimately decided that granting the applications would ‘not be in the public interest, due to the signal this would send to the Syrian opposition and other international partners, resulting in damage to the UK’s international relations’.
On 25 May 2015, the Home Office’s Nationality Instructions were amended to enable applications for naturalisation to be refused on grounds relating to the public interest.
Paragraph 18.1.4 of those Instructions explains that this could be ‘for reasons relating to their actions, behaviour, personal circumstances and/or associations, including family relationships’.
One of the examples listed is where granting the application could ‘have an adverse impact on international relations’.
That paragraph continues, ‘In particular, the applicant’s associations, including family relationships, with those who have been or who are engaged in terrorism or unacceptable extremist behaviour…will normally warrant a refusal of citizenship. Due regard will be given to whether an association is current and/or whether family ties have been severed.’.
The Commission found that the discretion to refuse citizenship applications made by those who satisfy the statutory criteria is a wide one with the starting point being that nobody is entitled to be naturalised.
The Commission distinguished the High Court decision in R (MM) v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC (Admin) 3513;  1 WLR 2858 in which the Home Office refused the application for naturalisation by the wife of a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist.
In thats case, although the Applicant was of good character herself and satisfied the statutory requirements for naturalisation, her application was refused on the grounds that refusal would deter potential extremists from their activities, because they would know that if they engaged or persisted in extremism, applications for naturalisation by members of their families would be refused.
The High Court found that this was unfair and extended the scope of the discretion far beyond what had been intended by Parliament. It lacked internal logic and was therefore irrational.
The Commission found that the same could not be said for the decisions to refuse the Al-Assad family applications, and that the High Court was wrong to suggest that the discretion was a narrow one.
The decision is an interesting one as it underlines the broad discretionary powers available to the Home Office when it comes to protecting the UK’s international relations.
It strengthens the government’s hand to refuse to naturalise individuals of good character solely on the basis of their criticisms of repressive regimes who happen to be international allies of the government, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the UAE.
Would Jamal Khashoggi for example have ever been naturalised as a British citizen on the basis that to do so would jeopardise the UK’s international relations with Saudi Arabia, to which it sells billions of pounds worth of weapons every year?
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