Citizenship by birth, also known as jus soli, is the principle that grants citizenship to anyone born in a certain territory, regardless of their parents’ nationality or immigration status. The UK used to follow this principle until 1 January 1983, when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force. Since then, the UK has adopted a more restrictive approach to citizenship by birth, based on the parents’ citizenship or immigration status at the time of the child’s birth. This approach has been further tightened over the years, especially after the UK left the European Union (EU) in 2020.
The main reason why the UK stopped citizenship by birth was to reduce the number of people who could claim British citizenship without having any connection or allegiance to the UK. The government argued that citizenship by birth was being abused by some people who came to the UK for the sole purpose of giving birth to a British child, or who used their child’s citizenship to gain access to the UK’s benefits and services. The government also wanted to prevent the creation of stateless children, who would have no citizenship or nationality of any country.
The British Nationality Act 1981 introduced the concept of ‘settled status’, which means that a person has the right to live in the UK permanently, without any immigration restrictions. A child born in the UK on or after 1 January 1983 would only be a British citizen automatically if at least one of their parents had British or Irish citizenship, or settled status, at the time of the child’s birth. Otherwise, the child would have to apply for citizenship by registration, which would depend on various factors, such as the parents’ immigration status, the child’s residence in the UK, and the child’s good character.
The British Nationality Act 1981 also abolished the automatic citizenship by birth for people born in British overseas territories, such as Hong Kong, Gibraltar, and the Falkland Islands. These people would have to apply for British citizenship by descent, which would depend on their parents’ or grandparents’ citizenship or connection to the UK.
The UK’s departure from the EU in 2020 had a significant impact on the citizenship by birth rules for children born to EU or European Economic Area (EEA) citizens in the UK. Before Brexit, EU or EEA citizens had the right to live and work in the UK under the EU freedom of movement rules, and their children born in the UK would automatically be British citizens if at least one of their parents had ‘permanent residence’ status, which meant that they had lived in the UK for at least five years. After Brexit, the EU or EEA citizens had to apply for ‘settled status’ under the EU Settlement Scheme, which replaced the permanent residence status. The deadline to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme was 30 June 2021, and the children born to EU or EEA citizens on or after 1 July 2021 would not automatically be British citizens, unless their parents had applied for and obtained settled status before their birth.
The UK’s citizenship by birth policy has been criticised by some human rights groups and legal experts, who argue that it creates inequality and discrimination among children born in the UK, and that it violates the international conventions on the rights of the child and the prevention of statelessness. They also claim that the policy is ineffective in deterring irregular migration or reducing the number of British citizens, as many people who are eligible for citizenship by birth do not register or apply for it, either because they are unaware of their rights, or because they face practical or financial barriers to do so.
The UK’s citizenship by birth policy is likely to remain unchanged in the near future, as the government has shown no intention of reverting to the jus soli principle, or of relaxing the criteria for citizenship by birth. However, the policy may be challenged or amended by the courts, or by the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, who have some powers over immigration and citizenship matters. The policy may also be affected by the UK’s future relations with the EU and other countries, and by the changing demographics and attitudes of the British public towards immigration and citizenship.