New model citizens

 
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By Khaled Diab

Tougher naturalisation laws are counterproductive. What we need is to redefine our understanding of citizenship.

7 August 2009

The British government has unveiled tough new proposals to make it even harder for immigrants to gain citizenship. The measures range from the draconian – such as a ban on anti-war protests and testing people’s “integration” into the “British way of life” – to the more sensible, such as rewarding would-be citizens for their engagement in the democratic and civic life of the country.

But this new points-based system misses the point. If a government and society feel that the inflow of people is too high or unsustainable, they can reduce the number of immigrants entering their countries. Immigration can be made more difficult, but citizenship should be made easier.

Once people are resident in the country, they should have the right to become full members of the social compact between citizens and the government: people pay taxes and in return they have the right to choose the government and hold it to account. Expecting immigrants to pay but not play in this way is like the old-fashioned attitude to children: they should be seen but not heard.

It is also grossly unfair. Anyone living in a country for a number of years is affected by the decisions of the political apparatus. Depriving them of full citizenship also deprives them of their right to hold the government to account and to choose a government that defends their interests.

The inequity of the situation is made even worse when you consider that non-resident citizens are allowed, in many countries, to vote and shape the political landscape, but don’t live with the consequences – and often don’t even pay taxes in their home country. In fact, in countries with large communities abroad, the diaspora can be a major political force at home. There are even situations where people who have never lived in a country have more rights than those who have spent many years there.

With increasing levels of mobility around the world, we need to rethink and redefine our concepts of citizenship. Personally, I long for the day when supranational and international citizenship become the norm, and you pay taxes and vote where you happen to be living at the time. But that remains a distant and dim prospect.

It is sensible for countries to say that immigrants cannot apply for nationality until after a certain number of years living in the country (though this should not be set too high: four to five years perhaps) but they should reduce the number of bureaucratic hoops people have to jump through to become citizens. Belgium’s snel Belg wet is a good model in this regard: simple, straightforward procedures, no silly integration tests and no idiotic pledges of allegiance.

But residents who have not yet applied for nationality or, for whatever reason, do not wish to should have the right to vote in local and national elections. Likewise, citizens who have emigrated abroad or are living out of the country long term, especially if they are not paying taxes, should not have the right to vote.

Giving immigrants a voice in the affairs of state is not only good for them, it is also good for society. The elusive integration of immigrants everyone talks about is most likely to be achieved when they are made to feel they have a stake in society and can exercise their rights as active citizens.

We’ve come a long way from the exclusive origins of citizenship as being the free men of a city state. But we still have some way to go yet before our understanding of citizenship is truly inclusive.

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