Unblocking access to citizenship in the global South: Should the process be decentralised?

Published: 3/Jun/2020
Source: GLOBALCIT, European University Institute

By Bronwen Manby

More than one third of global migration has low and middle income countries as the destination;  three-quarters of the global refugee population is hosted by countries in Africa, Asia or Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet few migrants and refugees hosted by poor or middle-income countries ever get the opportunity to change their nationality and become citizens of the states where they settle. I propose that the problem of lack of access to citizenship should be addressed by developing local responses rather than national ones.

The right to change nationality

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes three elements of the right to a nationality in international law: the right to a nationality itself; the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of nationality; and the right to change nationality. The first element gets attention from those interested in the conundrum of statelessness, in membership and belonging; the second from those concerned about discrimination, due process, and the rule of law; but the third element is comparatively neglected by the policy and scholarly communities.

What does the right to change nationality mean? At the minimum legalistic level it requires that a person should have the right to renounce a birth nationality (provided that they can show that they have or will immediately acquire another nationality). But for the right to be real a person must also have the right to acquire nationality in another country than their country of birth, based on their strong connections there. In practice this is often not available.

The percentage of settled immigrants with host country citizenship reaches 90 percent in Canada, 81 percent in Australia, 62 percent in the US, and an average of 59 percent across the European Union (though with much variation).  In Africa and Asia we have no such statistics: but it is clear that naturalisation is often almost completely inaccessible, especially to those who most need it. Among African states, Nigeria – population estimated at 200 million – grants no more than a couple of hundred people citizenship each year (among them a substantial number who are the wives of Nigerians; gender discrimination applies in acquisition by spouses). South Africa, which until around 2010 naturalised ten thousand or more each year, has decided that naturalisation should be ‘exceptional’ and reduced the numbers to a few hundred. The statistics that can be gleaned from other African countries indicate that the numbers are everywhere low, sometimes in single figures each year, or zero.

The naturalisation provisions in the laws of post-colonial states largely mirror those of the colonisers, with minor variations adopted since independence – usually to make citizenship harder to acquire, by lengthening the residence period or creating stronger requirements of cultural assimilation. The list of conditions for naturalisation is, however, largely irrelevant. The key point about these rules is that they are based on assumptions that all those migrating from one country to another have identity documents confirming the nationality of their country of origin, a currently valid travel document, official permission to be in the country, proof of legal residence over the necessary period, and a fee of at least several hundred dollars (US$ 5,000 in the case of Tanzania). This is obviously moonshine for most migrants in poorer countries. Moreover, naturalisation is everywhere completely discretionary in law, and often perceived as being a personal favour given by the president. Scandals over corruption in naturalisation have convulsed the media in South Africa (the Gupta brothers naturalised by President Jacob Zuma) and Comoros (the scheme to sell ‘economic citizenship’ to be imposed on more than 40,000 stateless bidoon from the United Arab Emirates); and disquiet at abuse of naturalisation powers arises from time to time in many states.

Continue reading at GLOBALCIT website: https://globalcit.eu/unblocking-access-to-citizenship-in-the-global-south-should-the-process-be-decentralised/

Themes: Birth Registration, Naturalisation and Marriage, ID Documents and Passports
Regions: Pan Africa
Year: 2020