In the spring of 2019, at least 60 refugees aboard a dinghy bobbing in the Mediterranean near Libya were rescued by a ship deployed by a German organization called Sea-Eye. The ship was named the Alan Kurdi after the boy who, along with his mother and brother, drowned in 2015 trying to make it from Turkey to Greece. After rescuing the refugees, the Alan Kurdi approached Malta, but the authorities there refused to allow them to disembark. After 10 days of negotiation, Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, finally tweeted that they would be allowed to land and then “redistributed” to other countries in Europe. “None will remain in Malta,” he wrote.
A year later, Malta enlisted a clandestine fleet of private merchant vessels to intercept migrants sailing toward Malta and force them back to a war zone in Libya. This was likely a violation of international law. And just a few months ago, the Maltese authorities asked a passing tanker, the Maersk Etienne, to help a boat in distress nearby. Twenty-seven migrants were on board the boat, including a pregnant woman. Malta then refused to allow the ship to come ashore for weeks. Merchant vessels have long been rescuing boats in the Mediterranean in accordance with the dictates of international maritime laws; usually, anyone rescued is dropped off at the nearest safe port.
No wonder Malta has been accused of heartless anti-migrant policies. But strangely, Malta opens its doors to other new citizens — if they can pay. A scheme launched in 2013 allows anyone to purchase Maltese citizenship for a hefty fee: now about €1.2 million, or about $1.3 million. In 2017, for example, Malta issued 62 passports to two Saudi families, the al-Muhaidib and the al-Agil, many of whose members had yet to set foot on Maltese territory, for a price of around $743,000 each. Both families are among the wealthiest in the world.
A case can be made that Malta’s policies are quite rational: Why shouldn’t the government enrich itself by selling coveted citizenship in a European Union nation? Is that different from countries marketing the majesty of their mountains, the thrills of their cities and the lustrous white sand of their beaches to attract the wealth of foreign tourists?
Some say a person on a tourist visa is not the same as a citizen who makes a long-term commitment to the country. True, a tourist visa offers limited, short-term rights. But it is not clear whether the Saudis who purchased citizenship in 2017 convey a long-term commitment to Malta. There is no requirement for applicants to live in Malta before or after such citizenship approvals. Indeed, those who might be ready to commit to Malta as their primary home are regularly denied entry or moved on to other countries, like the migrants aboard the Alan Kurdi.
Others find it disturbing that Malta is cheapening the meaning of citizenship by selling it for a price. But Malta is not alone. Montenegro’s citizenship by investment costs at least €250,000 and offers visa-free access to 124 countries. The United States has long run the EB-5 visa program that offers permanent residency to foreigners and their families if they invest about a million dollars. Wealthy families from India have bankrolled hotel projects in Milwaukee, just as Chinese families have helped fund some American TV shows like “2 Broke Girls”, “Shameless” and “Pretty Little Liars” in exchange for U.S. residency visas.
The transactional nature of investment-seeking state practices becomes clearer when you look at Bangladesh, which can cancel citizenship if the person removes the investment from the country. Citizenship in such cases seems to lose its permanent immutable character; rather, it appears more like a set of rights purchased at a price for a period of time.
More than 50 countries offer some package of rights for those willing to pay for it. You may receive a full basket of rights in one case and an investor visa in another. And the transaction follows an algorithmic, if-this-then-that, model. If you pay €650,000, plus €25,000 for each spouse and child, invest €150,000 in financial instruments, and purchase real estate for a minimum of €350,000, you get Malta’s certificate of naturalization, which includes EU citizenship, allowing you to settle down in any of the 27 EU countries, plus Switzerland, and travel visa-free to more than 160 countries across the world, including the U.S.
How could citizenship, an apparent sacred bond between person and nation, be offered for purchase? The European Commission is launching infringement procedures against Malta and Cyprus for granting EU citizenship for fixed payments without any genuine link with the member states concerned. I would guess that Malta and Cyprus will have to reduce the size of their offering from full citizenship rights to permanent residency. And they may have to reduce the price. What will not go away, however, is the markedly transactional feel to the whole thing.
It’s tempting to condemn the commodification of citizenship, and to try to strip the rich of their power to purchase global liberties most of us can’t afford to acquire. In order to grapple with the ethics of citizenship sales, however, we need to confront questions largely lost from view: questions about the shifting grounds of citizenship.
Modern states have long pretended that citizenship derives from nature: ancestry or territory. That is, by blood or by birth within the territory. But it actually derives from law. Unlike premodern societies, which were able to place the fact of belonging outside human decision-making, a modern polity cannot escape the fact that the status of being a citizen results from laws, a status that in democracies means that citizens both receive the rights conferred by citizenship and can weigh in on the laws themselves through the act of voting. There is no non-legal form of modern citizenship. If we fail to acknowledge this simple fact, we may as well consign citizenship to the realm of rhetoric and mythos.
It is not surprising that old definitions based on premodern forms of belonging are crumbling. By cracking down on Malta and Cyprus, the European Commission may be barking up the wrong tree — wealth is not the only thing that countries seek to attract. Many also hunt for talent. They offer residency to attract human capital. And the ingredients of human capital — skills, education, merit — sound far less dirty than bare money. In fact, one of the three criteria of the EU’s immigration policy is prosperity, which includes skills and economic need.
While capital-seeking policies are decried, ones seeking human capital are lauded, even if they follow the same algorithmic logic. Consider Canada’s Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS). If an applicant scores a sufficient number of points on education, language proficiency, youth, work experience and skill transferability, they become eligible for a big basket of work and residency rights in Canada.
That’s just permanent residency, not citizenship — but a permanent resident has the right to access most social benefits in Canada, from healthcare to legal protections. Permanent residents only lack the right to vote or run for federal office, and they don’t get a Canadian passport. But they do keep full citizenship rights in their country of origin.
It’s not just rich countries that are dangling the treats of residency rights to attract global wealth and talent. Other countries, too, have a trick up their sleeve. They beckon their vast diaspora that left for greener pastures long ago, even generations ago, urging them to come back to the country where they or their ancestors were born. More than 130 countries now extend either full or partial rights to their diaspora.
The extension of citizenship rights to the diaspora hits two birds with one stone: It meets the longstanding demands of elite émigrés, and it shores up the political economy of remittances. Allowing members of the diaspora to take an active interest in what’s going on in their ancestral homeland also helps governments tap their purses in pursuit of developmental, technological and foreign exchange goals. Dual citizenships are rising in number. Actually, we shouldn’t really call them dual citizenships because they do not necessarily mean equal memberships in two countries; an individual may have varying packages of rights in numerous nations.
All this raises a question about the meaning of citizenship. Some people can claim citizenship rights in more than one country while others lack those rights within their own. In the U.S., some native-born citizens who have served time in prison lose the right to vote. An estimated 5.1 million voting-age U.S. citizens were disenfranchised for the 2020 presidential election because of a current or previous felony conviction, according to a study from The Sentencing Project. Similarly, some citizens have all rights on paper but lack the means to exercise them, like those experiencing homelessness who have a barely tolerated right to residency on the streets.
We live in a world where being born within a country does not guarantee all citizenship rights, and being born in a foreign country may not necessarily restrict them.
To explain what citizenship means today, there is a widespread tendency to reach for the language of membership. Citizenship is widely believed to mean membership in a polity. This understanding seems to have changed little since ancient Greece, where citizenship presumably referred to membership in the polis or city-state. Indeed, the word citizen appears to have evolved from “citisein,” a 12-century Anglo-Norman French word based on the Latin “civitas” that means “inhabitant of a city or town.”
Membership, let’s admit, is a deeply seductive idea. It promises several things: inclusion, community, solidarity and common enemies who lurk in the vast and unfamiliar outside world. There are two problems with the language of membership: It no longer works, and it is far less inclusive than it seems.
It may have been useful at a time when it was possible to say that “Every person should have a nationality and one nationality only,” as the 1930 League of Nations convention on nationality law declared. There was a time when one’s loyalty and allegiance could be fastened to a single nation, often sealed with the requirement of military service.
It is much less useful in a world of accelerated migrations and displacements. It is also not practical, because the membership framework cannot tell us about the exact status of immigrants — whether they are partial members or nonmembers who lack a complete set of rights. The complete set of rights is not available to even some full members, like ex-felons.
Membership is also not inclusive. By nature, it is a principle more of exclusion than inclusion. It creates an imagined meadow of togetherness surrounded by an immense forest of dangerous others who must be kept away. By default, it excludes far more people than it includes. The model of membership cannot handle overlapping allegiances, divided loyalties and mobile populations, creating an unhelpful situation of “us” versus “them” in a world where “us” and “them” are becoming inexorably more integrated by transportation and communication.
The political vocabulary of membership produces the dichotomous — member/nonmember — formulation of citizenship. It permits a class of people to lay claim to the entire political-territorial complex, while supporting the rhetoric of stripping others of any claim, even though the so-called members can never know most of their fellow members on a personal basis; it’s a solidarity of strangers against other strangers. More importantly, it creates conditions for unnecessary hostility and mistreatment of people considered nonmembers, and fuels a talk of belonging that casts minorities who do not fit the national frame as outsiders.
Rather than thinking of citizenship in terms of “in or out,” it is more appropriate to capture it in terms of “more or less” — degrees of citizenship rather than the usual citizen-noncitizen framework. It is dysfunctional to think of citizenship as a form of blanket membership in a national club; instead, citizenship has grown to be a measure of modulated access to a cluster of rights.
Some argue that citizenship is not just a matter of rights; it is also of duties and responsibilities, such as paying taxes or serving in the military. It would be wrong, however, to suggest that only formal citizens pay taxes; in the U.S., for example, permanent residents and immigrants pay taxes at the same rate. In fact, it is estimated that the average tax rate for so-called illegal immigrants is higher than the rate paid by top earners in the U.S., even if their basket of rights remains tiny, just the barest human rights. Illegal immigrants also can’t utilize such welfare rights as social security benefits, despite the fact that their tax withholdings contribute to social security.
Regarding the military, there has been a long history of immigrant participation and service. The U.S. military enlists about 5,000 noncitizen permanent residents each year. More than 700 Medals of Honor have been presented to immigrants, about 20 percent of the revered group, though federal law prohibits immigrants from rising to the rank of an officer.
By leaving out a vast number of undocumented immigrants, non-immigrant visa holders, permanent residents and other presumed nonmembers who are present, working and contributing to a given society, the membership model is increasingly blind to political, civil and social reality.
In an era of overlapping and intersecting institutional ties, citizenship refers to a dynamically changing assemblage of rights that gets activated on one’s entry into a particular setting. Let us call it modular citizenship. The nation-state remains a major player but not as a vessel containing members; rather, the cross-cutting authority of world states implements and distributes highly differentiated clusters of rights across the world.
What’s so modular about citizenship? Modularity and modulation are two compatible ways to think about it. We may consider citizenship as composed of independent units or modules of rights that can be altered or replaced without affecting the remainder of the structure. And governments of the world have the ability to regulate or modulate the quality and quantity of rights available to individuals within their jurisdictions.
Some argue that citizenship is still primarily decided by the accident of birth. What’s the point of harping on rights when most people will never end up leaving their country and their rights will simply be decided by where they happened to have been born? So we have two camps among scholars of citizenship: one contending that a shift from birth-based to rights-based membership has already taken place or ought to take place, and the other arguing that birth-based membership in a sovereign polity remains the primary mode of citizenship.
There is a way to resolve this debate. Birth, quite like wealth or skills, is just another principle that modulates citizenship rights. It is the most-used, pragmatic and hassle-free principle of gaining citizenship rights. But it is no longer the only one.
By assimilating birth as one of the factors, the model of modular citizenship integrates both sides of the debate within a single framework. It can explain both the most liberal citizenship regimes as well as the ones still focused on birthright. It can clarify Malta’s criterion of money to offer the full package of rights to foreigners and Saudi Arabia’s principle of blood to prevent non-national families living in the country for multiple generations from gaining some of the same rights. Instead of thinking of them as nonmembers in a country they call home, it is better to regard their citizenship as smaller in size, keeping open the possibility of expanding its scope.
Unlike the notion of membership, citizenship has never been fixed or static; it shrinks and expands. When the women’s suffrage movement won its battle, it expanded women’s citizenship in the U.S.; the same goes for the civil, gay, disability and various immigrant rights movements that resulted in expanded citizenship.
If we begin to think of rights as the currency by which citizenship is measured, we are better able to perceive the uneven accumulation of citizenship at a national as well as international level. This also allows us to answer a difficult question about one’s global citizenship, which is simply the size and shape of one’s global basket of rights. By purchasing Maltese citizenship, those Saudi families drastically expanded their global basket of rights while the ones aboard the leaky dinghy did so shakily through the political right of asylum. This development may not be emancipatory, but addressing the inequalities of the global age requires a new conception of citizenship.