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Governments Increasingly Restrict Citizenship

Governments Increasingly Restrict Citizenship

Cover Top10 5Citizenship

Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. Changes to the Dominican constitution rendered stateless thousands of descendants of Haitian immigrants. (Photo: El Marto/Flickr)

The question of who belongs in a nation strikes at the heart of a country’s identity. It is no surprise therefore that governments typically set high requirements governing who can acquire citizenship—and reserve the right to strip it from those who would do the nation harm. In 2015, both citizenship acquisition and revocation came under fire in new ways. Politicians in a number of countries—including the United States—have attempted to restrict who is eligible to become a citizen, while others have expanded the definition of who can be deprived of citizenship.

Those restricting eligibility have largely been driven by the aim of excluding descendants of unauthorized immigrants or contested minority groups from citizenship—drawing a bright line around “desired” citizens. The second trend has mainly been driven by fears of international terrorism. Canada, Australia, and a handful of European countries have passed or proposed legislation making it easier to strip suspected terrorists—almost all of whom are Muslim and male—of what should be a nation’s most secure and permanent right. Both trends come with a high penalty: potentially marginalizing immigrant or minority communities, and in some cases rendering individuals stateless (for more on the political rhetoric driving these trends, see Issue #6: Refugee Crisis Deepens Political Polarization in the West).   

Issue No. 5 of Top Ten of 2015

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Narrowing the Citizenship Pool

The Dominican Republic in 2015 pushed forward with policies designed to strip citizenship from Dominican-born individuals of Haitian descent. This followed a controversial 2013 court ruling basing citizenship on parents’ immigration status instead of birth in the country, which, applied retroactively to 1929, left an estimated 200,000 people stateless. Following international outcry, the government backtracked slightly, launching an immigrant registration program to allow this population to apply for citizenship as foreigners. While tens of thousands of people registered, the majority faced challenges gathering the required documentation. When the government enforced the program’s deadline, more than 40,000 Haitians chose to leave the country, fearing mass deportations and possibly a violent crackdown.

In a similar trend, in Burma (also known as Myanmar), the Rohingya Muslim minority has been in a limbo of statelessness for decades. The country’s 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognize the term “Rohingya” (the official term referring to them is “Bengalis”) and those who self-identify as Rohingya are considered unauthorized immigrants—despite having lived in the territory for generations. On March 31, the government went a step further by invalidating more than 750,000 temporary ID cards (known as white cards) held mostly by Rohingya Muslims, depriving them of their only identification documents and leaving them without the means to vote or access basic services. While the government began replacing white cards with new “green cards” for those “found to be legal residents,” it is unlikely that Rohingya will qualify under the strict nationality law—rendering an already marginalized population significantly more vulnerable.

In the United States, birthright citizenship became an early target for Republican presidential candidates as the 2016 election campaign ramped up during the summer. Nearly every baby born on U.S. soil (diplomats’ children are notably excepted) is guaranteed U.S. citizenship as enshrined in the Constitution in 1868 with the 14th Amendment and endorsed 30 years later by the Supreme Court. However, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed repealing birthright citizenship, arguing that automatically conferring citizenship to the U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants acts as the “biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” Many other candidates have endorsed the idea, though debate has arisen over whether it can be achieved without a constitutional amendment.

Rather than reducing the unauthorized population, however, repealing birthright citizenship would more than double its size to 24 million by 2050 from 11 million today, according to a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis. This would create a vicious cycle of marginalization and a self-perpetuating class of unauthorized immigrants.

Casting a Wider Net to Revoke Citizenship

Fears of international terrorism—exacerbated by the November 13 Paris attacks—prompted several countries to expand the conditions under which they can rescind citizenship. While most industrialized nations have long had laws on the books to strip citizenship for behavior that threatens the interests of the state, such as treason or fighting for a foreign government, these provisions have been broadened to include suspected participation in terrorist activities, as well as fighting for nonstate terrorist groups such as ISIS. In many cases, revocation applies only to dual citizens, effectively creating two classes of citizenship: by birth, which cannot be taken away, and by naturalization, which can now be reconsidered under a growing set of circumstances.

A handful of European countries including Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have amended their citizenship laws to make it easier to revoke the citizenship of foreign fighters (Norway also considered similar legislation). Several other countries have followed suit. In Canada, the highly controversial Bill C-24, which came into effect in May, allows the government to revoke Canadian citizenship from dual citizens who are convicted of terrorism, high treason, or other serious offenses. Australia’s prime minister proposed similar legislation in June, which passed Parliament in early December. The United Kingdom went one step further, expanding the scope of its existing laws on revoking citizenship to allow them to be applied to naturalized citizens even if the act renders them stateless. In the wake of the November Paris attacks, French President François Hollande announced that he wants to change the constitution to make it possible to revoke the citizenship of convicted terrorists born in France who have dual nationality, while Israel’s prime minister said he will seek to strip citizenship from Arab Israelis who join ISIS or leave to fight in Syria. Concerns about terrorism also reached into citizenship acquisition. Following the January Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Portugal amended its Nationality Act in June making it easier to oppose the naturalization of would-be citizens who are involved in terrorist activities. And in Italy, a proposed law making it easier for second-generation immigrants to gain citizenship has faced intense backlash from right-wing parties since the November Paris attacks.

These regulations significantly broaden the range of offenses for which individuals can be stripped of their citizenship—down to damaging public property and speech-related offenses. They also broaden the target group covered by these laws, which now extends to individuals with ties to terrorist groups—even without a conviction. Austria’s amendment to its Nationality Law, which came into force on January 1, 2015, expands the government’s ability to strip citizenship from individuals fighting for foreign states to those involved with organized armed groups. Several bills introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2015 include similarly broad criteria, proposing to strip citizenship from individuals who travel abroad to support terrorist groups, and even those who offer “material support” from home.

These policies raise serious questions regarding the burden of proof and appeals processes—as well as more fundamentally whether the laws successfully address the concerns that spawned them. Many analysts agree that revocation of citizenship is not a serious deterrent to those plotting attacks, and a United Nations working group has warned of the disproportionate restriction of human rights stemming from so-called foreign fighter laws.

While the motivations behind the push to change citizenship policies may be clear, there is scant evidence that new restrictions have achieved their respective goals of reducing illegal immigration or thwarting terrorist attacks—yet their appeal seems to be growing.


MPI Research


Garcia, Sandra E. 2015. Born Dominican, but locked out by Haitian roots and lack of ID. The New York Times, October 29, 2015. Available Online.

Government of Canada. 2015. Government of Canada now able to revoke citizenship of dual citizens convicted of terrorism. Press release, May 29, 2015. Available Online.

Human Rights Watch. 2015. UN: End Overbroad Foreign Terrorist Fighter Laws. News release, November 2, 2015. Available Online.

Maung, U Shwe. 2015. Myanmar’s disenfranchised Rohingya. The New York Times, November 2, 2015. Available Online.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, the Netherlands. 2014. Kabinet versterkt integrale aanpak jihadisme en radicalisering [Cabinet reinforced integrated approach to jihadism and radicalization]. News release, August 29, 2014. Available Online.

Pedroza, Luicy. 2015. Myanmar: How the Rohingya and other resident minorities became disenfranchised. EUDO Citizenship, July 17, 2015. Available Online.

Radio Free Asia. 2015. Myanmar officials issue green cards to Muslims in Rakhine State. Radio Free Asia, June 15, 2015. Available Online.

Segreti, Giulia. 2015. Italy citizenship law faces backlash in wake of Paris attacks. Financial Times, December 1, 2015. Available Online.

Sheppard, Howard. 2015. Rep. Charlie Dent’s bill would strip citizenship of Americans who travel overseas to join ISIS. Fox43.com, December 8, 2015. Available Online.

Valchars, Gerd. 2014. Bill to denationalise Austrians fighting in armed conflicts passed by Parliament. EUDO Citizenship, December 11, 2014. Available Online.

United Kingdom. 2014. Immigration Act 2014 c. 22, 2013-14 session. Available Online.

Woodley, Naomi. 2015. Citizenship, multinational tax avoidance and higher education bills pass in rowdy end to parliament. ABC News Australia, December 3, 2015. Available Online.

World Bulletin. 2015. Israel seeks to strip citizenship of ISIL fighters. World Bulletin, November 22, 2015. Available Online.

Wroe, David. 2015. Citizenship could be stripped for wide range of offences under terror laws. Sydney Morning Herald, June 25, 2015. Available Online.

Zaw, Nobel. 2015. Former ‘White Card’ holders to get a turquoise alternative: official. The Irrawaddy, June 3, 2015. Available Online.