Columns

Lost Nationalities

Stephen Henighan

It is not only the children of British mothers who have lost one of their nationalities; Great Britain, too, has lost a part of itself

Welcome home,” the immigration official at Heathrow airport in London said, looking me in the eye. I exited the efficient line for European Union nationals and went in search of my luggage. Most of my fellow passengers from the Air Canada flight from Ottawa, still mired in the snaking queue reserved for non-E.U. citizens, were preparing their answers to the anticipated questions about the purpose of their trips to Great Britain. I was free. I did not have a British passport, but at Heathrow I was accorded the privileges of a born-and-bred Londoner.

I’ve spent a decade of my life in Great Britain. This fact, however, is not the reason I am allowed to use the line for E.U. nationals. I owe that privilege to my English mother. Had it been my father, not my mother, who was English, I could have acquired a British passport at birth. Children of English mothers, if they are Commonwealth citizens, may request a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode, a visa-like stamp which, when affixed to a Canadian or Australian passport, entitles the bearer to live and work in Great Britain, and to vote in local, although not national, elections. After the initial application fee (about $13 when I applied in my early twenties), renewals are free of charge. Each time I renewed my Canadian passport, I sent my old and new passports to the British High Commission in Ottawa, where a fresh Certificate of Entitlement was stamped into the new passport.

Being spared the inconvenience of queues at Heathrow was the least of the Certificate’s charms. I took advantage of my privileges to work in the U.K., both casually, as a data entry clerk at the Paddington Health Authority in my twenties, and more seriously, when I taught at the University of London in my thirties. Beyond these practical advantages lay the comforting sense of being formally recognized by Great Britain as someone with roots in the country. Holding the Certificate of Entitlement did not make me any less Canadian: it multiplied my range of potential references and resources, and acknowledged the forms of double, triple or quadruple belonging generated by a world defined by immigration and cross-cultural marriages.

The expansion of the European Union placed holders of the Certificate of Entitlement in an anomalous position. I continued to carry my Canadian passport through the E.U. nationals line in London or Edinburgh, but if I landed in Frankfurt I was a non-European, plagued by all the disadvantages associated with that status. On one occasion, arriving in Rome from Belgrade in the late 199s, I watched the interrogation of my Serbian fellow passengers, who were in front of me in the non-E.U. nationals line, go on for such a long time that I missed my connecting flight. I cherished the privileges granted me by the Certificate of Entitlement in part because I feared that European integration, with its fitful movement toward a common immigration policy, might eventually rule cases such as mine out of order.

This apprehension has now become reality. In early 27 I renewed my Canadian passport and prepared to mail the old and new passports to the British High Commission. In 22, for the first time, I’d been obliged to fill in an on-line visa renewal form to request the transfer of the Certificate of Entitlement to my new Canadian passport. Some of the questions on the form didn’t match my circumstances. When I phoned for advice on how to approach these discrepancies, an easygoing British official in Ottawa said: “Oh, just fill it out as best you can. We don’t worry much about the Certificates of Entitlement.”

By 27 everything had changed. I went on-line to find that as of December 21, 26, in order to renew my Certificate of Entitlement for five years I would have to pay a fee of $48 and provide, among numerous other documents, the original version of my birth certificate. When I phoned to inquire about these changes, I was transferred to a call centre in India, which demanded my credit card number and proceeded to bilk me for the privilege of being repelled with bureaucratic bafflegab. Affable officials at the British High Commission were no longer accessible by telephone. I later called the High Commission’s Media and Public Affairs Department for the purposes of this column, and was invited to leave a message on an answering machine. The head of the department, Renée Filiatrault, phoned me back. When I requested an interview with an official, Ms. Filiatrault told me that I had the right to submit questions; she would then “research the answers.” I submitted questions: What are the reasons for this change in policy? Are officials aware that the new rules will reduce the number of people holding the Certificate of Entitlement? Did European Union immigration policy play a role in this decision? Is this change the prelude to phasing out the Certificate of Entitlement category? Were security concerns a factor? Ms. Filiatrault said: “Thanks very much. You’ve still got time before the deadline for your article, so I’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks.”

Ms. Filiatrault never called back. Over the next four months I left messages on her answering machine, reminding her of our conversation and spelling out my phone number and email address. I delayed this column by one issue (three months) in order to keep trying. All to no avail: the British High Commission did not want to talk about the quashing of the Certificate of Entitlement. It would be understandable if they were ashamed of themselves. Great Britain not only has sidelined a form of flexible near-citizenship perfectly adapted to a world in which cultures overlap, depriving British society of the potential contributions of thousands of people, but it has based this exclusion on the gender of these people’s British parents. (Those with British fathers are rewarded with the right to work in any of the twenty-five E.U. countries.) In terms of both conceptions of citizenship and sexual equality, the introduction of arduous conditions for renewing the Certificate of Entitlement represents a gigantic step backward from the twenty-first century to the moated castle of the Dark Ages. But it’s not only the children of British mothers who have lost one of our nationalities. Great Britain, too, has lost a part of itself. The curtailing of the democratic society where the offspring of citizens became citizens, where an individual had the right to speak to an immigration official and a journalist could ask such officials questions, is also a loss of national culture. Sadly, security measures designed to “preserve national values” almost always have the opposite effect.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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