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What is Citizenship?

NPS photo by Neal Herbert

The concept of citizenship is one that has been around for several centuries, yet the term has evolved over time to represent something more than it once did. On the other hand, citizenship is not singular. It spans countries, cultures and even time. As it evolves over time, various kinds of citizenship have been redefined. While citizenship remains the legal status that a citizen has within a state, it no longer requires the birth-right that it once came with.

Throughout history, citizenship has adapted to its surrounding conditions, following events like decolonisation, the Second World War or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, with international migration documented at higher levels, more routes to gaining citizenship are becoming available, with some even acquiring multiple citizenships, where it is allowed. 

One of the most common paths to citizenship is jus sanguinis, which, from Latin, translates to ‘right of blood’. This describes a person whose parent, grandparent or other ascendent is already a citizen of a specific state separate from the country that the person was born in. However, this may differ depending on the nation. In many jurisdictions such as Canada, Israel or Greece, jus sanguinis and jus soli are combined into one model.

Jus soli or ‘right of soil’ generally refers to the instance in which a citizen born within a country is given its citizenship. Sometimes, a person is given automatic citizenship of the state they are born in, however this is not the case everywhere or may be restricted to certain regulations. Jus soli originated from the United Kingdom and was implemented as part of its common law where those born in the nation were known as ‘subjects of the Monarch’. In the United States of America, this is known as ‘birth-right citizenship’. Contrary to popular belief, there are currently only over 30 nations in the world that grant this type of citizenship.

Naturalisation is another common route to acquiring citizenship. This usually applies to those who have entered the country legally, through political asylum or have lawfully lived there for a specific period. For those becoming new citizens, it is customary to take a test demonstrating understanding of the nation’s laws, culture, tradition and language. In some nations, it’s required for a new citizen to renounce their old citizenship which is the case in Indonesia where individuals must give up one citizenship by the age of 18. Marriage can also be an avenue to citizenship and is known as jus matrimonii. For those married to a citizen of a nation, a fast track process for naturalisation may occur where relevant.

Lastly, for those unable to acquire citizenship in more traditional ways, economic citizenship can be a viable path. Citizenship by investment (CBI) programmes give investors a means of gaining citizenship through monetary contribution to a country’s economy. There are currently over a dozen active programmes in existence, some of which date back to 1984 like the St Kitts and Nevis Citizenship by Investment Programme. The initiative permits countries to channel the generated funds into developing sectors such as healthcare, education, infrastructure and more. In exchange, investors usually gain a wealth of benefits, including visa-free travel to more jurisdictions than previously available, business opportunities and the chance to pass citizenship down to future generations. Yet the most valuable feature gained with second citizenship is security and safety, as for many individuals and their families their country of origin may be politically unstable and physically unsafe.

Yet despite Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stating that everyone has the right to nationality, there are still varying loopholes. For around twelve million people in the world, statelessness is the norm. A stateless person is one who isn’t recognised as a citizen by any country. This can be caused by anything from gender or religion discrimination to conflict in nationality laws or something as simple as administrative difficulties. In one notable case, an Iranian man who was expelled from his country lived inside Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport for close to twenty years after being denied entrance for having no documents, thus becoming stateless.

Over the last few centuries, citizenship has come to take many shapes and forms even while the core values have stayed the same. The kinship that is born from the concept is still prominent today, as are the rights and freedoms that are associated with it. While those values will be linked with a person’s citizenship, it is likely that the concept will continue to evolve and adapt just as we do as citizens. What citizenship means to a person and what drives them to seek it depends entirely on the individual, whether it is linked to personal circumstances, heritage connection or commitment to a country.

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