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

Quasi-Citizenship as a Potential Alternative to Naturalisation in the Arab World

Lillian Frost (European University Institute/Virginia Tech)

Significance of Naturalisation

Bronwen Manby raises a critical, and as she notes often-overlooked, issue in the global South. We know that the global South hosts the vast majority of the world’s refugees as well as many other migrants. Therefore, Manby rightly highlights that “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,” which is particularly problematic in states where there are no rights in law or practice to nationality based on birth in the territory.

This issue is increasingly troubling as refugees remain in exile for longer in developing host states (i.e., those that the World Bank does not classify as high-income members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). My calculations from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) and UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East’s (UNRWA) data reveal that in 2018, 87% of refugees had been living in a developing host state for at least five years, compared to 76% in 2003. In addition, UNHCR reports that the average duration of a refugee’s time in exile has increased from 9 years in 1993 to 17 years in 2003 to 26 years in 2006.

Without access to nationality or legal civil statuses in their host states, refugees can lack rights to work, healthcare, and education. This situation also generates more cases of statelessness, as Manby and Amal de Chickera highlight, where refugees cannot claim these rights in any state. The fact that critical rights often are attached to nationality in the global South today provides one answer to Irene Bloemraad’s question: “how much does citizenship matter to the daily lives of most global South residents?” My fieldwork in Jordan suggests that citizenship, in terms of access to nationality, matters substantially by highlighting the challenges noncitizens face compared to citizens. These include not having legal access to work in many sectors, difficulties accessing driver’s licences and higher education, and limited rights to property ownership and inheritance.

In this piece, I will focus on the feasibility and potential outcomes of devolving the authority for naturalisation from national to local governments in the Arab world and particularly in Jordan, where I have conducted the bulk of my research. In the Arab world, no states offer access to nationality by birth on the state’s territory and all states exercise significant discretion in the implementation of naturalisation provisions. In addition, naturalisation procedures typically are rare and viewed as “exceptional” rather than “normal.” Arab countries certainly are not unique in this respect—Erin Aeran Chung finds similar views in Taiwan’s and South Korea’s pasts—but they represent an important region for Manby’s proposal.

Root Barriers to Naturalisation

Although, like Sanzhuan Guo, I commend Manby’s creative thinking in suggesting that states develop “local responses rather than national ones” to low naturalisation rates and statelessness, I agree with Imke Harbers that without addressing the root causes of current barriers to naturalisation, such a decentralised approach is unlikely to change the current situation. Let me highlight three major barriers that would make a devolution of the power to naturalise infeasible or ineffective in Jordan, as well as much of the Arab world, and that seem to have relevance for cases beyond the region.

Limited and Ambiguous Policies

First, discrepancies between nationality laws and their implementing regulations are a major barrier to naturalisation. All Arab states include provisions for naturalisation in their nationality laws; however, these provisions either build in enough discretion that allows the government to reject nearly all applications, or the government does not implement these provisions in practice, producing an ambiguous policy. In both cases, those legally eligible for naturalisation, like many individuals I interviewed in Jordan, decide that it is not worth the time, money, and effort to try to naturalise. A few individuals noted their failures to start the process when Ministry of Interior officials implementing it discouraged their application or when applicants submitted the first round of paperwork and never received a response.

These experiences align with the findings from my research on intentional ambiguity in the rights of long-term refugee groups in developing host states, where apparent institutional weakness can hide political motivations for adopting ambiguous policies that say one thing in law and do another in practice. In Jordan, it seems that these findings also apply to naturalisation policies, which many officials admitted were not implemented in practice except in rare cases. This relates to Christine Hobden’s observation in the South African case that “often inefficiency is a cover for hidden (or even explicit) agendas to prevent naturalisation.” These findings also relate to Sujata Ramachandran’s call to “document the myriad formal and informal ways in which naturalisation operates in practice,” by highlighting the differences in the law and implementation of naturalisation policies. These law-implementation gaps also connect to Manby’s description of the apparent arbitrariness of naturalisation procedures due to their governance by ministerial regulations rather than transparent laws.

Naturalisation as Power

Second, another barrier to naturalisation is that states often do not want more citizens, nor do they want to devolve the power to create new citizens to local officials. This is particularly a concern in nondemocratic states, where, as Guo points out in the Chinese context, overseeing access to nationality is viewed as “a security-related issue.” It also is particularly a concern in states with large per-capita migrant populations, which Alfred Babo mentions when discussing the more exclusionary approach to Ivorian nationality taken in the 1990s. My ongoing research on Arab states preventing women from conferring their nationality to their children and spouses highlights that less democratic states with larger per-capita migrant populations are far less likely to remove this discrimination and create a new pathway to nationality than more democratic states or those with lower migrant populations. This finding likely extends to naturalisation reforms that clearly generate a new pathway to nationality.

The Arab world includes many nondemocratic states with large migrant populations. In addition to major refugee host states, like Jordan and Lebanon, the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council states also host massive migrant populations, ranging from 30 to 90 percent of the total population. These contexts produce serious demographic and political implications of opening access to citizenship and nationality to migrants, even if this access were restricted to those who qualify under current naturalisation residence provisions, which range from 4–5 years to 20–30 years of residence. In addition, expanding naturalisation would erode state “benefits” to limiting the number of its citizens. These include reducing demands on the state’s social programs and demands for political reforms as well as sustaining a pool of noncitizen workers who lack full legal protections and accept lower wages. These “benefits” highlight some of the dark incentives for preserving current barriers to naturalisation, in both nondemocratic and democratic states.

Given these links between naturalisation and power, most Arab states likely would view devolution as a threat. Specifically, such a reform would reduce the central state’s power and enable local officials to remake the demographic and, in doing so, political landscape of the country. In a country like Jordan, where identity, demographic, and authoritarian politics loom large, a real devolution of such power essentially is unthinkable. If forced to undertake such a reform, this change probably would occur only on paper, while national security officials continued to control these procedures in practice. Likewise, when confronted by the international community, national leaders might seize the opportunity to deflect blame for low naturalisation rates to local officials.

Hostility to Naturalisation

A third major barrier to naturalisation is public hostility toward accepting more migrants as citizens. This issue is not limited to the Arab world but also applies in China, as Guo highlights, in South Africa, as Hobden notes, and in Ethiopia, as Yonatan Fessha reports. Citizens, like elite government officials, have rational motivations to block noncitizens’ access to naturalisation. These include competition for work, education, and state benefits as well as a desire to maintain the country’s traditional identity, whether this is rooted in a specific ethnicity, religion, or other national narrative. In Jordan, these attitudes came across in interviews between 2016 and 2019 as well as in archival files from the 1960s—suggesting that such concerns are not new. Overall, without changing popular attitudes toward migrants—on top of national state concerns with releasing such power and continued legal ambiguities—it is unlikely that devolving naturalisation to the local level would change current rates of and access to naturalisation.

Potential Benefits of Devolving Naturalisation

However, despite the grim outlook for decentralising and devolving naturalisation in the Arab world, there are some potential benefits that such a policy change—if states agreed to undertake it—could yield. First, all Arab states, with the exception of Algeria, include some form of discrimination toward citizen women in conferring nationality to their spouses and children. As mentioned, this discrimination is strongest (i.e., nearly no opportunities for women to confer their nationality to spouses or children) in the Arab states with the largest numbers of migrants per capita, including in Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Qatar. Although this issue is polarising on the national level due to demographic politics and the securitisation of new pathways to citizenship, there are sympathies at the popular level toward these women and their families. As such, on a case-by-case basis, localities might extend nationality to some of these women’s families, particularly to their children. This is one important, though potentially uneven, benefit of devolving naturalisation.

Second, in some cases, migrants (including refugees) have family or tribal ties to their host states. This is particularly the case for Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon as well as Saudis and Iraqis in Jordan. Again, at the national level, any measures to extend nationality to particular groups is polarising. However, on a case-by-case basis, localities might be willing to naturalise some migrants, especially in border areas where the migrants have clear familial or cultural links to the host community. This could boost access to nationality for some. In general, the devolution of power could remove some of the politics surrounding naturalisation by operating at the individual rather than group level, and this could increase naturalisation rates.

Another Approach: Formalising Quasi-Citizen Statuses?

Overall, one point of agreement in this discussion forum is the importance of helping people access legal identity documents to enable them to move, work, and access basic services. However, nationality may not be a feasible status to provide. Given the intense politicisation of naturalisation in many Arab states, and perhaps more broadly, even beyond the global South, another solution may include formalising quasi-citizen statuses, particularly for refugees who often lack access to the same residence documents as other migrants, as Guo, Ramachandran, and Fessha have highlighted in the Chinese, South African, and Ethiopian contexts, respectively.

Although there may be drawbacks to creating legal hierarchies, such reforms could represent one step toward making access to legal status and nationality more transparent and accessible. Although state officials may shut down a conversation about naturalisation—as many do in Jordan—they are willing to consider other forms of identification that could help noncitizens access some work, healthcare, and education, as has been the case with Jordan’s distribution of identity cards to Syrian refugees. In addition, pressuring state officials to then stipulate the rights in law that these legal statuses entail would help reduce the precarity of noncitizens’ daily lives. For example, Palestinian refugees who came from the Gaza Strip to Jordan after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War have had quasi-citizen status in practice since 1968, but have lacked such a status in law. Although at times they can access work sectors or temporary passports typically unavailable to foreigners, they do not have a right to these benefits in law, rendering them vulnerable to changes in practices.

In conclusion, formalising different forms of quasi-citizenship, or denizenship, might be a more fruitful step to helping the most vulnerable migrants (including refugees) access rights. This focus on a solution that provides people with better guarantees of secure residence and access to basic rights could garner more popular and elite support than the, at times, explosive issue of naturalisation. This returns to Bloemraad’s other question “why it is worth promoting access to citizenship in the first place.” Although citizenship is not worthless in the global South, she perhaps highlights that it might not be the right issue to focus on now. Instead, it seems we need creative solutions that can de-politicise access to basic rights for migrants as much as possible in order to secure more feasible, effective reforms.