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Foreign fighters forfeit citizenship, and life

As the debate intensifies over a new Bill to strip citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorism overseas, one notorious foreign fighter from Australia, Mohamed Elomar, has reportedly forfeited his life to the ISIS terrorist cause in Iraq.

Chris Berg, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, told The Point Magazine that revoking the citizenship of foreign fighters may not have any significant benefit for Australia’s national security.

“It’s very unlikely that this will have a material impact on the fight against terrorism. What we know about foreign fighters is when they first go to fight in foreign warzones, they often destroy their passports and tell family and friends that they have gone over there permanently. This is a decision that they make to fight and possibly die in a foreign nation with no intent on returning,” he said. 

But he said the proposed laws may have an impact on disillusioned foreign fighters who want to return to Australia, even if that means facing terrorism charges. 

“What happens however is of course a lot of them go over there, fighting and dying is not actually as appealing as they originally thought and want to come home, so it will have an effect on those people, but not sure if it will have an effect on those with the intentions to travel there in the first place,” he said.  

There are unconfirmed reports that Australian citizens Elomar and his friend Khaled Sharrouf were killed while fighting for the terrorist organisation ISIS in Mosul, which is a “declared area” under foreign fighters legislation introduced last year. Sharrouf’s wife now hopes to return to Australia with her five children. 

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has received submissions from various groups, including media outlets and law associations, on proposed legislation to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals suspected of being involved in terrorism overseas.

"Citizenship doesn’t have much meaning if it doesn’t indicate a basic loyalty to the sounding principles of liberal democracies and going to fight for ISIS is as much of revocation of that loyalty."

– Chris Berg, Institute of Public Affairs

Amnesty International in its submission calls on parliament to reject the bill, or at the very least amend it to require a criminal conviction in a court.

The Law Council of Australia argued that a ministerial decision to revoke citizenship should require that the “person poses a substantial risk to Australia’s security” and only after a criminal conviction “by an independent, impartial and competent court or tribunal”.

Some groups supported the legislation.

“Whether Australian citizenship should, or even can, continue to be held by traitors remains the heart of the matter,” the Australian Defence Association argued in its submission.

“The nub of the issue is how to deal with treachery, rather than how we define or might revoke citizenship...There is, in our view, no doubt that serious inconsistencies remain in our existing laws covering the crimes of treachery and treason,” it wrote.

Human rights lawyer and Muslim community advocate, Lydia Shelly, questioned the value of the proposed new citizenship laws. 

“I do not believe that foreign fighters are concerned about their citizenship status, which raises the question of what is the real point of making amendments to the citizenship laws?” she told The Point Magazine.

She is concerned that current debates about national security might be damaging social cohesion. “There is no acknowledgement that social cohesion is at the heart of our country’s security,” she said.

The submission by the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) stressed the importance of citizenship policy in maintaining social cohesion by giving migrants a sense of belonging.

“Citizenship is also a symbol of acceptance into the Australian community and is highly valued among immigrants groups, particularly refugees.... Creating two categories of citizenship has the potential to affect social cohesion in Australian society,” it wrote.

Elias Attia, a 28 year-old lawyer from Sydney, says that stripping individuals of their citizenship might in fact help the ISIS terrorist cause by giving undue recognition to its sovereignty claims.

“While there is no doubt that ISIS fighters must be dealt with, applying this type of law to them and their supporters would, for the first time, acknowledge them as a state which is another major tactical error,” he told The Point Magazine.  

Though there are already limited powers that allow citizenship to be revoked by the Minister, there have been just sixteen cases of this happening since 1949. Australia only changed its laws to allow dual citizenship without restrictions in 2002. 

Although the current debate has focussed on the constitutional basis of the new citizenship laws, Berg said it also opens up a range of different views about what citizenship really means.

“Citizenship is one of two things, it’s either a philosophical concept that symbolises absolute loyalty to a particular nation or state or is a bundle of rights and privileges. What happens in the discussion about citizenship is we confuse the philosophical view on citizenship with the legal view of citizenship. Citizenship itself is very fuzzy because a lot of people bring different things to it,” he said.

While opposed to powers that would allow Ministers to revoke citizenship without a criminal conviction, Berg said the debate is worth having. 

“In my view it should be on the cards because citizenship doesn’t have much meaning if it doesn’t indicate a basic loyalty to the sounding principles of liberal democracies and going to fight for ISIS is as much of revocation of that loyalty,” he said.

The Point

Foreign fighters spark deeper debate about the value of citizenship

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