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

Re-centring political equality as a good of citizenship: a response to proposals to decentralise the naturalisation process.

Christine Hobden (University of Fort Hare/ Iso Lomso Fellow, Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study)

Statelessness and a lack of documentation are a significant barrier to naturalisation in Africa. Bronwen Manby’s kickoff contribution to this forum highlights this fact, and its likely existence in many other parts of the global South. Despite significant migration within Africa, naturalisation figures remain startlingly low; a feature found too in South America, as pointed out by Diego Acosta. Manby suggests that decentralisation of the naturalisation process provides us with a bold response to this intractable problem. She points us to models of local procedures that verify identity through witness statements, and thus, she alludes, provide a good way to get around sole reliance on paperwork that so many do not have in their possession. 

The Risks of Decentralisation

Others in the forum have highlighted the risk that a decentralised process will result in arbitrary, discriminatory, and unequal access to citizenship. Focusing on the empirical evidence from contemporary and historical examples, they have highlighted that decentralisation does not necessarily increase naturalisation (as Barbara von Ruette shows is the case in Switzerland) and where it does, it is normally for a privileged grouping (as Irene Bloemraad argues was the case in localised US naturalisation).

Throughout the forum, the challenge of xenophobia has been considered in light of the decentralisation proposal. One might think that placing the naturalisation process at the local level can induce better relationships between migrants and locals. It may be a fairer process if those who have actually interacted with each other participate in it, rather than relying on a face-less national level procedure. Yet, in South Africa for example, it is precisely at this day-to-day level that xenophobia has been most dangerous: think here of the extreme hostility to foreign-owned spaza shops serving local communities with basic daily essentials. It is not clear that the local level will provide welcome in deeply xenophobic contexts, whether in providing local witnesses in support of applications or a less hostile procedure. As Bloemraad notes, local warmth of welcome matters.

It has been suggested, drawing on the case of Switzerland, that local procedures can at least help to make migrants aware of the possibility of naturalisation and that it is a possibility that belongs to them. Naturalisation processes, even at a national level, are often technically complex, precluding applicants through tactics of benign or intentional obfuscation. In South Africa, such tactics have been called ‘a paper wall’ in the case of refugee law, while Manby herself has argued that the “apparently dry details of the rules for obtaining papers can hide an ocean of discrimination and denial of rights.” One particularly egregious example of this use of procedural warfare is South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs’ refusal to issue regulations to specify the procedure to acquire citizenship as a stateless child born in South Africa.

The local level may have some potential to remedy the challenges of technically complex procedures, although even here, is it likely to become confusing if procedures differ between regions, as highlighted in the case of Switzerland. It is not clear, however, that it will ameliorate the strategic use of procedure as a barrier to access. In cases of chronic xenophobia, differentiated processes create more scope to purposefully muddy the waters as a way to deter applicants. As a result, the risk is that not only is the path to citizenship limited in undemocratic and opaque ways, but also in ways that unequally impact on migrants across the country.

Bloemraad invites us to consider the trade-off between the benefits of citizenship and the inequalities that acquiring citizenship through a decentralised process may create. At what cost (and what kinds of costs) are we willing to open access to citizenship?

Political Equality as a Central Good of Citizenship

Very little attention has been given in the contributions so far to the good of political voice contained within citizenship. Unequal access to citizenship is not just about (the very important) differing access to the material goods and stability of citizenship. It is also about unequal access to political voice in the political processes that govern the community. While local politics is of critical importance, especially in the global South, there is something significant about a democracy’s national polity that we should not neglect.

It is at this collective level that the most central goods of citizenship are guaranteed: access to basic human rights, the upholding of the rule of law, and policies that further or hinder political equality (think here of national education policies, human rights protections for the LGBTQ community, or electoral reforms). While local governance often plays an important role in implementing reform on these issues, national level policies are central in setting the agenda and thus the scope of local action. Acquiring citizenship is an act of joining this national polity; joining the collective that determines the overarching policy and principles of the country.

South Africa’s democracy is compromised, for example, by the fact mentioned by Sujata Ramachandran: there are millions of long-term resident Zimbabweans living in South Africa without recourse to apply for nationalisation given the temporary nature of the permits granted. These visas have now been renewed for a total of twelve years yet do not allow application for permanent residence, naturalisation, or special access to citizenship for children of these residents. It is not only the unjust withholding of the material goods of citizenship that mars South Africa’s democracy; it is the fact that it is knowingly cultivating a class of demi-citizens. These individuals remain without access to full political voice despite long-term residence and a commitment to staying in place.

To be clear, Manby too, is attempting to open access to this national citizenship. She proposes that we can best do this through differentiated local procedures. Yet this differentiated model undermines political equality within the national collective. It is very difficult to maintain true relational equality between citizens if citizens from different regions or localities have joined the national polity in different numbers and under differing conditions. Given the central value of political equality in a democracy, we should prioritise having a fair and equal process in place for joining a national democratic polity. There will, of course, always be some difference in how citizens become citizens: some are born citizens and others acquire it through naturalisation. In many states, this naturalisation is accessible through different routes according to one’s employment, ethnic affiliation, or family ties. The point here is that democratic principles require us to keep this difference to a minimum in order to protect political equality and to foster relational equality between citizens.  

Manby is correct that we need to pay more attention to the fact that colonialism and war have left large numbers of Africans stateless or without documentation to prove citizenship, even in places they have lived their whole lives. A focus on political equality reminds us, however, of the central importance of such documents: an equal process to access reliable documentation that is equally respected in all parts of a country is essential to the rule of law and an equal citizenship. As others have noted, it is highly likely that in a decentralised system, regions will end up with differing integration priorities (think here of India’s West Bengal State’s relationship with Bangladeshi migrants, as discussed by Ramachandran). Can we afford to risk exacerbating the potential for such immigrants to be deemed second-class members in the national polity? In already xenophobic societies, will documentation from some regions come to be worth more than others?

Bloemraad leaves a question mark over the precise value of citizenship in the global South in comparison to the valuable citizenships of the global North. But if we refocus on the democratic value of citizenship, perhaps such comparisons will seem less plausible. In fact, given the long history of colonialism and empire, the value of political equality and a meaningfully democratic polity is especially important in the global South; millions remain undocumented and disenfranchised as a result of colonialism and its lingering social, economic, political, and legal legacies. This is precisely the kind of concern that animates Manby’s suggestion of decentralisation as a route to open up access to citizenship. But if the foundational value of citizenship lies at least partly in its promise of political equality, can we afford a method of acquisition that risks such great inequality? Even if such a route allows for a higher rate of naturalisation, we should be careful to ensure that the route itself does not undermine the value of the destination.

The Way Forward?

If decentralisation is, in the end, too risky an endeavour, where to next? Manby has highlighted a deeply important problem: the current citizenship laws in many African countries are creating generations of residents without meaningful access to citizenship by naturalisation. In many cases, such as South Africa, practitioners argue that the issue lies centrally in practical implementation. We need to hold the government accountable to implement policy efficiently, fairly and with transparency. But yet, as the South African case demonstrates, often inefficiency is a cover for hidden (or even explicit) agendas to prevent naturalisation. Erin Aeran Chung illustrates, in her discussion of Japan and South Korea, that it is local government and civil society actively encouraging naturalisation that makes a difference in naturalisation rates. As Ramachandran points out, xenophobic tendencies can undermine progress toward broader access to naturalisation. Our first focus ought then to be on facing up to xenophobia: highlighting the ways it is shaping citizenship policy and implementation, and working to change attitudes of citizens, the civil service, and government representatives.  

While South Africa is not a very good example in practice, it still offers us an example of another important step forward. The South African Constitution grants almost all rights to those who live in South Africa, not only those who are citizens. As the newly democratic South Africa realised, fully naturalised citizenship ought not to be a gatekeeper for human rights. In practice, many struggle to access certain rights, such as health care mentioned previously. But that should not deter us from pursuing the goal. When citizenship is no longer a requirement to access essential social services, naturalisation regains its important democratic feature: it is the ability and choice to join a democratic project as a fully participating, equal member. The cost to political equality when we decentralise that process is not something a democratic state should be willing to risk.