COVID-19 and the future of dual citizenship

By Peter Spiro (Temple University)


The immediate consequences on immigration of the COVID-19 pandemic have been acute and profound. Most countries have imposed COVID-related restrictions on the inwards movement of persons. Visa services are on hold. Formal restrictions are reinforced by the near-disappearance of scheduled air transport. Much of the world is on lockdown. One can expect these restrictions to stay largely in place for so long as the virus remains out of control. Short of a vaccine, the off-ramp will consist of highly intrusive health-monitoring practices for entrants. Among those countries that manage to put a lid on the disease, one could also imagine new constellations of revived mobility. But normalising global movement to anything like the pre-COVID era looks like a long path.

Citizenship practices and policies are less obviously impacted. To the extent citizenship status is coupled with entry rights, one might expect states to constrict citizenship allocation and to suppress dual citizenship. Countries might change their view of instrumental citizens especially if they end up on their doorsteps instead of someone else’s. One might also expect individuals to be less interested in acquiring citizenship to the extent third-country travel privileges are no longer part of the package. Supply and demand may shift. But short of full deglobalisation and sustained lockdown, citizenship is likely to remain a valuable asset at the same time that states are unlikely to see serious new costs in pre-COVID citizenship practices. The pandemic is unlikely to reverse a long progression towards state acceptance of and individual interests in dual citizenship.

Demand-side dual citizenship: Not quite what it has been

One can break down three sources of dual citizenship: those who get it at birth, those who naturalise after migrating, and those who naturalise without migrating. From an individual’s perspective, the first two categories are unlikely to be much affected by the pandemic. Those who get dual citizenship at birth typically get it automatically, so there is no agency involved. The incentives for naturalising in a state after resettling there are largely unchanged. If anything, there will be more reason to naturalise, insofar as there is any doubt about locational security. Migrants will look to formalise their right to remain and reenter the country of naturalisation in the event of a subsequent pandemic or other emergency event, especially if they are able to retain their citizenship of origin. That added incentive will be marginal, as most countries appear to have excepted residents from entry restrictions, but a rational immigrant could well see an added insurance value in acquiring citizenship.

Possible elasticity is found mostly in the last category, those who naturalise without migration (non-resident naturalisation). This category includes those who claim citizenship on an ancestral basis, through birth tourism, and those who buy it outright. Non-resident naturalisation has grown dramatically in recent years with the growing acceptance of dual citizenship; one can secure the additional citizenship and any benefits that come with it without risking one’s primary citizenship in the country of residence. As documented most recently by Yossi Harpaz, individuals who claim ancestral citizenship and engage in “strategic cross-border birth” are at least in part motivated by enhanced travel and settlement privileges, either for themselves or their children. These travel privileges sometimes implicate the country whose citizenship is acquired but as or more often the object is the upgrading of travel privileges to other countries. Serbians acquire Hungarian citizenship not because they want to move to Hungary but because they want to live and work elsewhere in the EU. This is even more obviously the case with so-called investment citizenship. The attraction of Maltese citizenship has been Berlin or Milan, not Valetta.

These mobility benefits have been compromised by COVID-19. Citizenship in St Kitts will not get you into the EU, nor for that matter will a US passport. An EU passport will for the moment not facilitate travel to the United States; it may not even guarantee entry into other EU countries. Travel and settlement rights – key elements in recent passport rankings – have been severely compromised. This could affect demand for non-resident citizenship.

Dual citizenship as health insurance

But at least in one obvious respect the value of secondary citizenships is enhanced by the COVID situation and the prospect of future pandemics. In most cases, citizenship in a state still guarantees you entry into that state. Even most (though not all) countries that have adopted total entry bans have excepted nationals from the scope of the ban. That may not have seemed like much pre-COVID. Today, being able to enter Malta or Cyprus or even St Kitts may look like a valuable escape hatch to potential investment citizens. For the very rich, the price tag is nominal. What good does a private jet do you if you have no place to go? (Malta and Cyprus each have fewer than twenty COVID deaths as of mid-May.) Investor citizenship impresario Christian Kalin of Henley and Partners reports that applications for new nationalities have risen by 42% in the first quarter of 2020.

The same may go for those with ancestral and other nominally-established qualifications for citizenship. It is well established that insurance against political risk is an important motivation for acquiring non-resident citizenship. Now we might also speak of insurance against health emergencies. Individuals will see this as a benefit of securing an additional citizenship. It may or may not be rational – who knows whether the country in which one’s grandparent was born will be a shelter from the next pandemic storm – but the additional citizenship and entry rights into that single country will supply value, and in most cases cost little if anything.

Moreover, travel and settlement privileges will almost certainly be restored at some point, at least in some constellations. Although COVID-19 probably presents the most serious threat to free movement in the European Union’s history, it is unlikely to shut it down on a permanent basis. Pre-COVID visa-free travel among other states will be restored, at least among countries that have eradicated the virus. Most of the recent entry restrictions will be lifted after the development of a vaccine. Global travel is unlikely to return to recent capacity for many years, but mobility privileges may. Citizenship is a longer-term investment (literally or not); many individuals who acquire a second citizenship do so not to facilitate short-term plans but rather to expand life opportunities, sometimes intergenerationally. It will take more than an outlier moment to erase that perception.  

Supply side: The low COVID costs of dual citizens

Sustained demand for extra citizenships will be meaningless if states opt to suppress the status. This seems unlikely. There is no COVID-related cause to reverse acceptance of dual citizenship with respect to those born with the status or those who naturalise as residents. Even with respect to non-resident naturalisation, states will have little justification to constrain the citizenship of those with “genuine links” to a state, in the framing of such prominent theorists as Rainer Bauböck and Ayelet Shachar. And they will also have a hard time distinguishing those who have genuine links from those who don’t. The one context in which such sorting is more readily undertaken – investment citizenship – is also unlikely to be scaled back. Dual citizens don’t cost states very much, even under pandemic conditions.

The pandemic demonstrates the continuing strong pull of national identification. More accurately, perhaps, it shows the continuing salience of home even in the face of globalisation. As the pandemic unfolded on a global basis, many people went back home, not only those who were travelling abroad as tourists but also those who have been working and resident abroad. That seemed natural. There were few objections to permitting the reentry of these individuals (there may have been issues relating to quarantine, but that is a separate matter). Amidst the nationals who were excepted from entry bans, there will have been some instrumental citizens, those who were not returning home but who were seeking refuge from their dangerous places of residence and primary citizenship, i.e. people who were seeking refuge from home rather than returning to it.

But one supposes not so many, and in any case not so many as to pose any significant burden on the state of non-resident citizenship. Because of the global nature of the pandemic, the value of being in one country over another has been (with very few exceptions, like New Zealand, perhaps) relative. It is not like fleeing a war zone for a peaceful one. However much an American with an instrumental EU passport might be tempted to relocate there, say to Germany or Austria, it would be a difficult time to establish residence – to make a home – because those places are under lockdowns, too. By way of some evidence (and supporting the contrast to those trying to escape conflict) there has been no carping about “Canadians of convenience” and the like getting evacuated from trouble spots courtesy of the state, as happened when Canada spent millions rescuing thousands of dual Lebanese-Canadians caught up in the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

Even if some individuals have exploited instrumental citizenships for entry purposes in the face of COVID-19, they posed no different a health hazard than mono or dual nationals who were returning to their real homes. So long as containment remains a possibility, all entrants pose a risk, which will be variable according to travel history and other factors, dual citizenship not among them. The entry of large numbers of non-resident citizens could burden quarantine capacities. If, for instance, large numbers of non-resident Irish citizens had decided to take advantage of the status and relocate to Ireland as the pandemic unfolded, that would have been a problem. But there was not a hint of that anywhere, and it is unlikely that governments will look to suppress dual citizenship as against future global health emergencies.

For states with investor citizenship programs, the balance is clear-cut. As economies crater everywhere, governments will be hard pressed to maintain revenue levels. Countries that relied on investor citizenship programs pre-COVID will be even more reliant on them today. This will be especially true for the Caribbean states whose economic lifeblood, tourism, has evaporated almost overnight. Countries with investor citizenship programs will now have to contemplate recipients who will actually come live with them. But there has always been that fiction at least. The numbers are small enough that protective health measures can be put to work to protect against the minimal added risk of entrants numbering in the hundreds at most. If anything, the scope of investment citizenship may broaden as states whose passports never offered much in the way of global travel rights can at least offer a shelter from spreading disease.

Citizenship After COVID-19

The decades-long move to accept dual citizenship is thus unlikely to be reversed in the wake of the pandemic. Will it change citizenship in other ways? Perhaps. The fight against the virus may revive some citizenship solidarities. To the extent that everyone feels in it together, and to the extent that the state is a key part of the answer, citizenship could enjoy a comeback. But both of those conditions look empirically variable. In some countries – ones that have stemmed infections – there should be a revival of constructive nationalist sentiment. In countries like South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, Denmark, Austria, and (perhaps) Germany, one can expect a deserved sense of national pride. Citizenship in those countries may take on new affective and instrumental value. In others – the US, UK, Italy, France, Russia, Brazil – maybe not so much. The US particularly is riven by political and other divisions, which COVID-19 appears to be compounding. The failure of the federal government to muster even a semi-competent, bipartisan response is likely to accelerate a growing sense that the United States is losing coherence.

Perhaps subnational solidarities will be reinforced where national ones fray. The coronavirus is global but of course it is territorial and spatial in its impact and transmission. One has to count on neighbours at least to be responsible – to be “good citizens” in an everyday sense. That could reinforce, or destabilise, the formal institution of citizenship in the state.