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Home News Malaysians left stateless in Britain in row over colonial law

Malaysians left stateless in Britain in row over colonial law

Published on October 20, 2009

London — Hundreds of Malaysians who tore up their passports and set off for Britain in the belief they could claim citizenship under a quirk of colonial law have found themselves stateless and desperate.

"Dee," a trained architect from the resort island of Penang, is now reduced to washing up dishes at a Chinese restaurant in central London — a victim, he says, of a "citizenship that is not real."

"I have become an illegal immigrant… actually even worse because at least they have their own country to go back to. I don’t," the 34-year-old told AFP.

A little-known legal clause gave residents of Penang and Malacca — a seaside enclave south of the capital Kuala Lumpur — the status of British Overseas Citizenship (BOC) when Malaysia gained independence in 1957.

Ethnic Chinese in the two regions that were part of a British colony in the former Malaya, wary of discrimination under an independent nation dominated by Muslim Malays, had sought assurances they could resort to residing in Britain.

Immigration activists say that a few hundred Malaysians took up citizenship, most of them eventually being granted the right after residing in Britain for more than five years in the 1980s and 1990s.

Immigration laws tightened up in 2002, ending any chance for Malaysian BOCs to register as British citizens.

But confusion over the change, combined with shady immigration lawyers out to make a buck, meant many Malaysians continued to pursue applications. Dee, who had seen many BOC friends successfully gain citizenship, applied in 2003.

Ben Scaro, an Australian lawyer who advocates their cause, says the situation became messier as cases were left unresolved for years, and letters sent in 2005 told applicants they could not proceed unless they showed they had lost Malaysian citizenship.

As a result, a large number of BOCs including Dee renounced their Malaysian citizenship — a process that is extremely difficult to reverse.

"I filled up the forms to renounce my citizenship and my Malaysian passport was cut up," Dee says. "I was told by the officials at the Malaysian High Commission here that I was no longer a Malaysian citizen."

"What makes it worse is the British government saying it’s very hard to renounce Malaysian citizenship and declaring we are still Malaysian while the Malaysian government says we are not Malaysian any more but British. Its crazy."

Sealing their fate, an Asylum and Immigration tribunal in July 2008 ruled that Malaysian BOCs who have or had Malaysian citizenship do not have a right to reside in Britain.

"We are looking at a situation where nearly 1,000 Malaysians who have given up their citizenship are now BOCs but have no right to stay in the UK," Ben Scaro said.

It also ruled that a Malaysian BOC does not lose their Malaysian citizenship by applying for a BOC passport or renunciation of Malaysian nationality.

"The British Home Office effectively orchestrated the BOCs’ statelessness," Scaro said.

"It said if you can prove you are not Malaysian your case can go forward, so of course the BOCs are going to go to the Malaysian High Commission and renounce.

"And then once they had renounced, then the decision comes along, saying the BOC will no longer be a path to citizenship."

Malaysian constitutional lawyers also disagree with the British tribunal’s interpretation of Malaysian law.

"If a Malaysian has gone through the renunciation process and followed the procedure, then the person is no longer a Malaysian citizen," prominent lawyer Malik Imtiaz Sarwar told AFP in Kuala Lumpur.

"Of course Malaysia would not allow the citizen to renounce its citizenship without having another citizenship but as far as the government is concerned the British Overseas Citizenship, as its name implies, is another citizenship."

"If these Malaysians follow the procedures, in these circumstances, they end up being stateless."

Edmund Yeo, a Malaysian citizen who is an elected councillor in Ealing, West London, says that only the British government can now resolve the dilemma.

"The British government gave them that right, they were born and you called them BOC in Malaysia… and now you want to remove yourself from this problem, that’s not right," he told AFP in his office near London’s Chinatown.

"These people can be turned into very productive citizens who pay taxes. These are not economic refugees, they did not come in the back of a lorry. They walked in the front door saying they are claiming citizenship, so give it to them."

London Citizens, a civic group campaigning for the BOC, organised a major rally in July to urge the British government to legalise long-term illegal residents who are hardworking and contribute to society.

"People who have been here for more than four years, show evidence that they are good citizens, non-criminals, willing to contribute, we ask the government to give them a two-year work permit and during the period if they get a strong reference from their employer, we ask they be made legal," said organiser Joy Lam.

"The Malaysian BOCs are a small group of people and they are stateless so our first priority is to try and get them indefinite leave to remain."

However, a UK Borders Agency spokesperson, in a written response to AFP, said the government was sticking to the ruling of the tribunal.

"Being a BOC is not the same thing as having British citizenship and does not give people an automatic right to live in the UK," she said.

"We do not believe that these individuals are stateless and the courts agreed. Anyone in the United Kingdom illegally should leave voluntarily. If they do not, they are liable to be removed."

For Dee, the situation remains bleak.

"Malaysia will not take me and I have lived in the UK for 11 years," he said. "I am British, I have lived here for more than a third of my life and I am willing to work hard so why don’t they just let me?"