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Unease grows over new Australian dual citizenship rules

19It is a club where membership is a “privilege that offers enormous rewards”, but Australia is planning to strip membership from alleged terrorists who hold dual nationality.

New legislation proposed by Australia’s Coalition government, expected to be introduced within weeks, will enable the government to remove Australian citizenship from dual nationals who take up arms or support militant groups at home or overseas.

More than 100 Australians are thought to be fighting with Islamic State and other extremists in Iraq and Syria, and the government in Canberra estimates that up to half are dual citizens.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott insists tough measures are needed to protect the country from those who are trying “to destroy us”.

Mr Abbott has also suggested that some sole Australian nationals involved in terrorism could lose their citizenship.

That controversial proposal would allow the country’s immigration minister to strip citizenship from second-generation migrants if they could be eligible for passports from another country.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is concerned about the enemy within Australia

The idea is part of a broader official discussion paper that has raised the ire of some senior cabinet ministers reportedly worried about how sole citizens will be affected, even though that could include one of Australia’s most wanted men, Khaled Sharrouf.

Sharrouf, a petty Sydney criminal with Lebanese heritage, dragged his family into the war in Syria in 2013.

Ten years ago, Sharrouf was jailed for his part in one of the biggest terrorism conspiracies Australia has ever seen, but a spell in prison did nothing to quell his radicalism.

Last year, he posted a photograph on social media of his seven-year-old son holding up a severed head in Syria.

There are now reports his Muslim-convert wife, Tara Nettleton, wants to flee Syria and bring her five children back to Australia.

Jihadist poster boy

So how might Mr Abbott’s passport purge apply to this family?

“Khaled Sharrouf is the poster boy for the bad jihadi,” explains Prof Greg Barton, an expert in international relations and politics at Monash University.

“When you think of people you would want to deny citizenship and not come back to Australia then he fits the bill perfectly,” says Prof Barton.

“There are, no doubt, some people we would be glad not to see come back and it might be useful in some of those cases to not have to deal with them in the Australian court system and our prisons, but it is not a silver bullet,” he says.

Tara Nettleton could face serious charges of supporting terrorism if she returns home, but Prof Barton told the BBC that although she might lose her liberty, it was unlikely she would become a persona non grata in her own country.

“If she were to come back she would certainly face prosecution and time in jail,” he says.

Australia is rethinking what it means to be an Australian citizen

“I don’t think in her case there would be any easy or justifiable way of revoking her Australian citizenship.”

It is understood that Ms Nettleton has sole Australia citizenship, so revoking those rights would render her stateless, which is prohibited by international law because it would leave her with nowhere to go.

Then there is the vexed question of her children.

Dr Clark Jones, a visiting fellow at Canberra’s Australian National University specialising in radicalisation and terrorism, believes the children should not be punished for the sins of their parents.

Children’s safety

“My primary concern is for the kids,” Dr Jones told the BBC.

“They need to be taken out of this conflict zone and I’m particularly concerned for their safety,” he says.

“Those kids have gone through all sorts of hardship and quite likely could be facing mental health issues.

“We need to get them back into Australia as quickly as possible and if we withdraw citizenship then the chances of them being able to return becomes more and more unlikely.”

UK Home Secretary Theresa May says “British values” could help counter home-grown terrorism

Under current legislation, dual nationals can lose their Australian citizenship if they fight for another country that is at war with Australia.

The forfeit is automatic, and there is no provision for ministerial intervention, as there would be under the proposed changes, which would mirror elements adopted in the UK.

Research fellow at the University of New South Wales, Sangeetha Pillai, says it seems more in line with the broad discretion that the UK Home Secretary has “than the more curtailed executive discretion in other countries such as Canada or France where an actual finding of criminal guilt is necessary before citizenship stripping becomes a possibility”.

Minister’s discretion

“While the trigger for losing citizenship will be the commission of an offence, that won’t need to be proved in a court to a criminal standard,” she says.

“It will be to the immigration minister’s satisfaction, and that is quite concerning to me,” she says.

There is unease, too, in Australia’s Muslim community.

Kuranda Seyit, the secretary of the Islamic Council of Victoria, says the targets of the new laws would invariably be Muslims.

“It will cause more division in our community,” Mr Seyit says.

“The Muslim community is under pressure. It already feels isolated and it is going to be further isolated by these Draconian measures.”