Additional reporting by Patrick Jack
More than 1,700 people in Kent became British citizens last year after swearing allegiance to the Queen at special ceremonies.
But with them indefinitely suspended due to lockdown, migrant rights campaigners say applicants across the country are stuck "in limbo”.
Home Office figures show 1,791 people attended citizenship ceremonies in Kent in 2019. This was a rise of 1% on the year before, bringing the total for the last decade to around 18,200.
A total of 1.2 million immigrants have gained citizenship in the UK over the last decade.
Participants are asked to make an oath of allegiance to the Queen and pledge to respect the rights, freedoms and laws of the UK. They are then presented with a certificate of British citizenship and a welcome pack. After this they are allowed to obtain a British Passport.
Jill Rutter, director of strategy at the think-tank British Future, said citizenship was important for integration and a shared sense of identity.
She said: "Citizenship ceremonies do really matter to new Britons. They mark the end of a long and expensive process and the start of an enhanced feeling of belonging to the country people have chosen to call home. We should restart citizenship ceremonies as soon as it is safe to do so.”
An independent inquiry into citizenship policy, co-ordinated by the group, is also paused due to Covid-19. In the longer term, British Future wants the UK to review its approach to citizenship, by reducing the “highest fees in the Western world” and cutting red tape.
Last year, 15,101 people attended ceremonies in the South East – among 110,000 across the UK. A further 3,000 did so at a British consulate abroad.
Maike Bohn, co-founder of think-tank the3million, which represents the rights of EU citizens, said the pandemic had caused “huge delays” for anyone wishing to become British – with appointments to provide details at biometric centres also suspended.
Romanian national Alexandra Bulat, a project manager at the think-tank, says she has paid more than £1,300 in application fees for her British citizenship but is still waiting for her ceremony to take place.
She said: “It all feels like you’re still in limbo because the process is still not done and dusted. The main reason a lot of EU citizens apply for citizenship is to feel more secure, because they don’t feel secure with the Settlement Scheme.
“Being a British citizen means you can vote and be a fuller part of society by participating in political processes. I think it’s quite important for people to feel that they have a say, whether that’s in the taxes that we pay or the direction the country is going.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Like applicants, we know how much citizenship ceremonies mean to people and we are actively looking at alternative, safe ways to reinstate such important occasions.”