Who is a Citizen anyway?

And what does it take to become one?

Across the world the topic of citizenship is more alive than at any other time since perhaps the end of the cold war, or even WWII. Watching the ongoing European migration crisis, Donald Trump’s speeches on Mexico, Nicolas Maduro’s condemnation of “Illegal Colombian” refugees, Australia’s policy to “boat people” and Myanmar’s exclusion of the “Rohingya”from its latest census efforts, it is clear that it’s not just Europe that is grappling with the issue of identity.

Since the treaties of Westphalia in post-medieval European history, the role of people and organisations has been defined by a “state-centred” view of the world. “We”, in the sense of the global body politik, became attached to the concept of a “nationality” or more simply an identity based on a combination of geographical proximity and the ethereal notion of “shared values” (whatever that phrase may in fact mean). But in a world where communication is not constrained by geography and where nations are rarely culturally “homogeneous” (if again they ever were), it seems that what makes a “citizen” is no longer clear. At least not to me.

Take for example the position of an EU citizen who chooses to work in the UK. They may study in the UK for many years, speak the language fluently, and eventually take a job there. During this time they have access to medical services from the UK, the security provided by the Police, fire brigade, intelligence services and so forth. They may even decide to marry a non-UK national and buy a home in the UK too. But after all of this, if they do not “apply” for UK citizenship, they cannot vote in the UK General Election. In fact, those who may have followed this pattern for the last 20 years (and paid taxes) are still not entitled to vote in the UK Referendum on the EU either. Even UK nationals living abroad in Europe, paying taxes and with ties to the UK may be “disqualified” from voting if they live for a certain time out of the country. Nor – I hasten to add – is this a UK only phenomenon.

Examining this, the obvious question comes: “what qualifications must one have to be a citizen”?

Is residency sufficient? Certainly many of those who have lived illegally in OECD nations (i.e. without official approval), may well become “citizens” by virtue of residency for a prolonged period. Being born in a nation (if if you do not reside there), is also sufficient grounds for “citizenship” in many countries too.

What about “cultural affinity”? Many Citizenship tests require people to speak the host language, recite parts of the country’s history and demonstrate an awareness of that nation’s “values”, often followed by a form of commitment or pledge, America perhaps being one of the more famous examples.

How about “attachment to the nation”? Those with family, spouses, historical links and even in some cases religious ties (see Israel), can also qualify as “Citizens” without any of the above mentioned criteria.

But, you may be asking, “why does this matter”?

Citizenship matters because, for better or worse, we live and function in a world that is still defined by nations. Our laws are written by nations, our careers and treatment abroad are defined by our “National identity” and our ability to change the way our world functions is still largely constrained to working within the constraints of our governments. In short, regardless of our preferences, our nationality and our “citizenship” is important.

But if citizenship matters, then how do we define it and how do “we” as citizens of our nation states define who else is “eligible” to be a citizen? Perhaps one of the aforementioned criteria, a blend of factors or maybe you, the reader, have your own view. One thing is for certain though, no-single definition is universally recognisable.

So if we must have citizens and citizenship must be given based on criteria which few agree with unanimously, then how do we evolve and adapt to the modern world?

This is no insignificant question and more fundamentally, this is the single major question which helps to explain why the issues of migration (illegal, asylum, refugee, etc) are so divisive within nations. It is one thing to say that those in need should receive help. That is a proposition which few disagree with, including all Europeans (though it may not be so clear to see). The issue however is not “helping those in need” or even deciding “who can work for a period, but rather at what point do those who have come to your nation seeking help, safety, work or a better life, have a “right” to become a “citizen” and what obligations are we, as citizens, under to those who we accept to reside within our borders? This question forms one of the core concerns voiced by those Eastern European nations who opposed quotas as well as those engaged in the Australian government‘s immigration policy.

Many in Syria are in desperate need. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that those refugees who are now residing in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and other neighboring states are in many cases (if not all), safe from the immediate risk of violence which forced them to flee. Given that, is it not reasonable to ask why a Syrian family who suffers should have any greater claim to reside and become an EU citizen than an Internally displaced Kivu family from the Congo or a Rohingya family forced to flee from Rahkinese authorities?

As the Guardian recently opined in respect of Syrian refugees “the US is shielded from the humanitarian dilemma by a stroke of geographic luck”, yet there are many nations which could equally deserve that description (the UK being one). But is “Geographic luck” really the ultimate determinant of who can become a “citizen”?

While I will not profess to have a holistic answer to such an all encompassing question, I will suggest the following. If we are to have “criteria” for citizenship, then let them be applied equally to all, irrespective of origin. I do not see why it is appropriate that a refugee from Syria is any more eligible than one from any other conflict, nor do I see why an EU citizen should have greater access to the “perks of citizenship” across the EU than other citizens of OECD nations (as just one example).

Why is it right that a citizen from Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the US should find it harder to live, work and study in the UK than a citizen from any EU nation? Surely one cannot claim that some supposed sense of “EU citizenship” is of greater cultural significance than shared heritage, shared heads of states (in some cases), shared language and shared social/corporate practises?

Citizenship and its connotations are inevitably ugly because by their nature they are divisive, as they were intended to be. But if we must live with them, then we must at least strive to apply their principles equally and fairly.

Quirks of geography, the whim of the press or prevailing public sentiment, appeals to narrowly held “fundamental beliefs” and politicised appeals to “solidarity”, are poor arguments with which to dispel the principles of fairness and justice.

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