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Letting Go of the Bad Eggs

30 Sep 2020
By Anton Lucanus
Australian passport held in front of the Sydney Opera House.  Source: Shutterstock.

Australia is amending its citizenship laws to strip Australian citizenship from dual citizens engaging in terrorism.  Such an act may protect Australians at home, but it offers no solution to global terror threats.

Australia, one of the world’s most hospitable nations, with immigrants comprising 30 percent of its population, is now prioritising national security over courtesy. The new Citizenship Cessation Bill, which is an amendment to the existing Australian  Citizenship Law, is due to be passed shortly in the Australian Parliament. The amendment will ensure that dual citizens will lose their Australian citizenship if they are found guilty of terrorism. The new laws apply to Australian dual citizens sentenced to at least three years in prison for terrorism and to those who have fought overseas for designated terrorist groups.

These amendments were triggered by the terror attack in Melbourne’s main business area on November 9, 2018, where a Somali-born Australian citizen, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali, crashed his car and set fire to it and stabbed three people. Two weeks later, the Australian government decided to bring in the amendments to the Citizenship Act. The Australian government also intends to implement a Temporary Exclusion Orders plan, which will authorise them to delay, monitor, and control the return from the Middle East of Australian dual-citizen foreign fighters, in an attempt to curb terrorism in the country. This is a far cry from the current laws governing this sector, which states that people who are convicted of terrorism will have their citizenship revoked only if they have been sentenced to seven years or more in prison.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at the time, “Our changes will make it easier to strip terrorists of their Australian citizenship. Terrorists forfeit their rights to be Australians when they carry out their evil acts.”

Recently, Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said, “If you’ve acted out; if you’ve betrayed your country; or you’ve got an intent to cause a mass casualty event in our country, then, frankly, we don’t want you here.” Dutton said that under a law which was introduced in 2015, nine people have had their Australian citizenship revoked for ties to foreign terrorist groups, after carrying out respective acts of terror.

The right to dual citizenship in Australia was initiated by major amendments to the Citizenship Act in 2002, stemming from a report in 2000 by the Australian Citizenship Council recommending updates to the citizenship law. Citizens of other countries who complete the mandatory time period as Australian permanent residents were given the opportunity to become Australian citizens, once they completed the citizenship test requirements.

However, with global terrorism becoming a critical issue in contemporary times, many countries, including Australia, have turned the spotlight on home-grown terrorists causing death and destruction domestically.

Australia’s experience with “home-grown” terrorism began in 2014, with the country raising it’s terror threat level in September 2014, for the first time, since the introduction of the alert system in Australia in 2002. The reasons for this were multifold: the increasing numbers of Australian citizens joining the Islamic State (IS) terror outfit and fighting in Iraq and Syria, and Australians in the country supporting overseas terrorist groups. With the threat level raised, along with the nation’s alertness for security breaches, Australia subsequently foiled several terrorist attacks.

In addition, the government comprehensively reformed Australia’s national security laws in August 2014, resulting in 16 counter-terrorism operations since September 2014, and the consequent charging of 44 persons.

Following IS declaring its caliphate in 2014, Australian courts charged over 80 people on terrorism offences. Furthermore, the passports of nearly 300 Australians planning to go overseas to engage in terrorist activity for IS were either canceled or suspended, fulfilling, in part, Australia’s duty to the international community by preventing the export of terrorism. The foiled bomb attack on a passenger flight carrying 400 people from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, in July 2017, was an eye-opener. Two men connected to IS were convicted of plotting to blow up the flight with military grade explosives hidden in a meat grinder.

Amendments in November 2018 to Australia’s Citizenship Act further focused on the issue of home-grown terrorism. The amendments included an expansion of the list of offences that allowed stripping people of Australian citizenship and a provision that Australian citizenship could be stripped whatever the sentencing for certain offences.

The logic behind all these amendments, including the current one for stripping Australian citizenship from dual citizens engaging in terrorism, is to limit the risk of Australians engaging in and supporting terrorism, and to shield Australians from domestic terror threats. A possible loss of citizenship is seen as a means to discourage Australians from supporting overseas terrorist groups and from travelling to hotspots to engage in terrorism.

However, there are some serious flaws in this reasoning. Stripping citizenship imposes geographical boundaries on a problem that defies boundaries. The most it can do is reduce the risk of terrorism on Australian soil. Yet Australians have come to harm in bomb attacks in other parts of the world, such as in the Bali bombing of 2002, the London Bridge attack in 2017, and the Barcelona and Sri Lanka attacks in 2019.

Stripping citizenship from “foreign fighter” Australians amounts to exiling foreign fighters who have a citizenship other than Australian. This means the terrorists are being shrugged off to another country and allows Australia to wipe their hands clean of that individual. While this method might work for the security of Australia, it might not be in the best interest of the world – a criminal doesn’t stop being a criminal when they have been shunted to a different country. The conclusion here is that countries should collaborate to effectively fight global terrorism; individual action tends to compound the problem.

Banning individuals such as New Zealander Mark Taylor, who lived for 25 years in Australia before leaving for Syria, or preventing IS “bride” Zaynab Sharrouf from returning to Australia, only adds fuel to the fire of the IS narrative.  It suggests that Australia only cares for their own and have drawn a firm line between what they will protect and what they will abandon.

On the contrary, if governments engage in identifying the causes of radicalisation, such as a sense of persecution, discrimination, and isolation, and act to minimise citizens embracing extremism, they would add strategic value to undermining the IS narrative. For instance, al-Qaeda’s first U.S. foreign fighter, Bryant Neal Viñas, once freed from prison, campaigned against Islamic radicalisation and was described as the “single most valuable cooperating witness” on al-Qaeda activities.

Nevertheless, Australia is determined to act firmly to safeguard its people, even if that means stripping Australian citizenship from their dual citizens who have exhibited questionable behavior against the country. Prime Minister Morrison said, “We’ll do everything we can to stay ahead of the evolving threat of terrorism to keep Australians safe.”

Anton Lucanus holds a BSc from the University of Western Australia and is the Founder of Neliti, Indonesia’s largest digital library with over 200,000 publications and 3 million monthly website visitors.  Anton is a past recipient of the AIIA’s Euan Crone Scholarship.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.