Investor citizenship and refusal as political practice of states and non-citizens

By Jelena Dzankic, GLOBALCIT coordinator

When I started researching the sale of passports a decade ago, there had been hardly any academic research on the topic. Yet with the increasing number of countries entering the global market for investor citizenship, a new academic field has started to develop around the notion of ius pecuniae (the law of money). It focuses on states’ discretion to naturalise on the basis of national interest, or on the detailed schemes ran by countries themselves or franchised to non-state actors. One issue that has recently captured my attention in this regard is the relationship between the notion of ‘refusal’ and investor citizenship as some sort of a compensatory mechanism for it. Refusal implies the unwillingness to accept, and in the context of citizenship it has two dimensions.

On the one hand, states may refuse to recognise individuals or groups as their citizens, generating thereby large populations with undefined statuses that limit their access to rights in the states of residence. The well-known examples include the non-citizen populations in the Baltic States and the Bidoons in the Arab countries. In such cases states refuse to grant full citizenship rights to these populations thus shirking their responsibility towards these groups. The mass purchases of the Comorian passports for the Bidoons by the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait illustrate an attempt to shed responsibility towards a non-citizen population.

On the other hand, refusal of citizenship may be an individual or group political practice, intended as a statement of political equality and individual autonomy vis-à-vis particular governments. This happens, for instance, in cases of Tibetan refugees in South Asia whose “claims to sovereignty in Tibet rested on their refusal of citizenship in India and Nepal, a refusal that allowed them to be claimed as refugee citizens by the exile government” (McGranahan 2018, 368). Recently, media have reported that Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the claimant to the 17th Karmapa Lama title and a (former) member of the Tibetan exile community in India, has acquired citizenship of the Commonwealth of Dominica through investment. His story is illustrative of the practice of refusal of the Indian political authority, yet instrumental acceptance of a neutral one. Together with the Comorian case, it points to how the concept of citizenship transforms, and what values it carries for individuals and states.


The Comorian wholesale of passports: state-based refusal of responsibility

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait host hundreds of thousands of stateless people (‘Bidoons’), who are believed to have entered these countries illegally to make claims to welfare and social protection (Abrahamian 2015). As a result of the refusal of the UAE and Kuwait to accept the Bidoons into their citizenry, this sizeable population has been deprived of many basic rights, including healthcare, education and even the possession of property. The statelessness of the Bidoons has been continuously criticised by human rights organisations.  The 2011 report of the Human Rights Watch ighlighted that international human rights norms create an obligation for governments to ensure “civil documentation for all residents, whether legal or illegal, including a child’s right to registration upon birth, and the right to marry and found a family”. In Kuwait, for instance, the Bidoons have been unable to obtain the basic civil documentation, including birth, death and marriage documents. According to Minority Rights Group, Bidoons are continuously discriminated against in terms of vocational and employment opportunities, contributing to their social marginalisation and poverty.

The ‘rejection’ of the Bidoons has further been aggravated when the governments of the UAE and Kuwait entered an agreement with the Union of the Comoros, a small volcanic archipelago off the coast of East Africa, in 2008 and 2014 respectively to purchase passports for the Gulf’s stateless. The individual purchase of passports has been possible in the Comoros since 2001. Yet in November 2008 the country adopted the Law on Economic Citizenship, which foresaw the grant of the country’s passports by presidential decree for a minimum investment specified in the yearly budget.

On the basis of the 2008 legislation, the government of UAE arranged an investment of $200 million in the Comorian infrastructure in exchange for passports for 4,000 Bidoon families. A few years later, Kuwait followed suit and invested several hundred thousand million US dollars in exchange for 36,000 Comorian passports. Once they had obtained the Comorian passports, the Bidoons ceased to be ‘stateless’, but the new passports explicitly forbade them to enter the African island. New passports also made them vulnerable to deportation from their countries of residence. This shows a twofold ‘refusal’ mechanism of states to accept responsibility for an ‘unwanted’ group through investor citizenship. First, the absence of any international norm forbidding the wholesale (or the sale) of passports has enabled the UAE and Kuwait to ‘get around’ the statelessness issue, thus raising a number of human rights concerns. Second, as Peter Spiro highlighted, Comoros is likely to ‘refuse’ to extend diplomatic protection to individuals with whom it has no substantial connection and who had never set foot on its soil.


Refusal as political practice: investor citizenship for a Tibetan monk

After the Tibetan uprising of 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama went into exile in India, together with a small community of his followers. Many Tibetans followed suit, crossing into neighbouring Nepal and India after the Chinese Communist invasion. Over the next seven decades a sizeable population of Tibetans and their descendants formed in these countries. Yet their status remained unresolved, mainly as the result of Tibetans’ refusal to be admitted to the citizenship of India or Nepal, which enabled them to re-create ‘their sovereign government as a functioning political body’ in a new extraterritorial polity (McGranahan 2018, 368).  In other words, they refused South Asian citizenship as a way of asserting the historical continuity of Tibet’s sovereignty. At the same time, India and Nepal, neither of which is bound by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, refuse to grant the Tibetans a refugee status that would eventually enable them to access citizenship. As a result of this twofold ‘refusal’, which unlike in the cases of the Bidoons in the UAE and Kuwait also has an individual dimension, Tibetans in South Asia exist on various permits or residence cards. In India, the possessors of the Tibetan Green Book, a document existing since 1971 as a sort of ‘proof of origin’ for Tibetans in exile, are eligible for a travel document issued by Indian authorities. Yet acquiring any other form of foreign citizenship would automatically terminate their status in India. A similar rule is applied in the case of Indian nationals who lose their Indian citizenship by operation of law if they take another citizenship (article 9 of the India Constitution). As a result, Tibetan refugees in India (and Nepal) deliberately live in a status of “non-citizenship”, which has become part of their political practice as refugees.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the claimant to the 17th Karmapa Lama title, possessed an Indian Residence Card (RC), which enabled him to travel abroad, yet with numerous restrictions. Citing health reasons and the ease of travel, in late 2018, Ogyen Trinley Dorje acquired a passport of the Commonwealth of Dominica. The small Caribbean nation, which runs one of the oldest investor citizenship programmes, offers its passport in exchange for slightly over $100,000. This passport enables its possessors visa-free travel in over 120 countries. Yet, now a Dominican citizen, Ogyen Trinley Dorje needs to apply for an Indian visa in order to return to India as his RC is no longer valid. Interestingly, this is contrary to ‘refusal’ as individual political practice of Tibetans not only in South Asia but also by those who obtained refugee status in North American countries.


In lieu of a conclusion

In the contemporary word, we think of citizenship as an access point to rights, as a status that implies a recognition of those who can participate in the political decisions, and equally a recognition of jurisdiction over individuals when outside the borders of their ‘home’ state. As the two cases above illustrate, refusals of such recognition can have both a state dimension and an individual one, creating populations whose rights are limited both domestically or internationally either through their own volition or by deliberate state action. While in these cases investor citizenship can indeed serve the instrumental purpose of attributing a status it remains problematic. The Comorian wholesale of passports reinforced ‘refusal’ as acceptance of political responsibility towards a community residing in the UAE and Kuwait. The case of a Tibetan monk acquiring the passport of the Commonwealth of Dominica is a bit more complex. There, ‘refusal’ as a political practice was used to assert claims to a sovereign political authority in Tibet. Simultaneously, the acquisition of investor citizenship indicates that such a ‘refusal’ plays out differently in contexts where political authority is seen as distant enough that it voids the passport of any symbolic or political attachment.



Abrahamian, Atossa A. 2015. The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. New York, NY: Columbia Global Reports.

McGranahan, Carol. 2018. Refusal as political practice: Citizenship, sovereignty, and Tibetan refugee status. American Ethnologist 45(3): 367-379.