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Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts (editors). The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), pp. 316.

Reviewed by: Abdul Gaffar (Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi)

The right to nationality is a fundamental human right. It seeks to acquire, change, and retain a nationality for the exercise of fundamental rights. In fact, the right to a nationality has been described as the “right to have rights.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that the right to have or change citizenship cannot be denied. On a spectrum, states are increasingly employing segmented and partial forms of rights for subjects within their own territory. These include documented and undocumented migrants as well as conventional refugees and asylum seekers; both are living in various degrees of uncertainty. That is why we are assured by international law and treaties to be a citizen of one state or another from the day we born to the day we die.

Round Table Event on Strengthening Partnership and Cooperation on International Migration. photo credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

In this sense, Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann and Margaret Walton-Roberts’s work is a collection of essays on the multiple and contradictory ways citizenship rights function for vulnerable groups under current conditions of increasingly securitised sovereignty. This book introduces the idea of a “slippery” right, where citizenship is not “a simple binary entity that one either possesses or does not”, (p. 2) but rather is something that can be denied, lost, be only partially fulfilled, or even forced upon people who do not want it. The primary contention of the editors is that citizenship is a slippery concept. In a legal sense, a person either has or does not have citizenship. But, in practice, the value of citizenship falls smoothly from the top—“the lucky holders of hard citizenship rights” in wealthy democratic countries—to the bottom—stateless persons who “[enjoy] neither de jure nor de facto citizenship anywhere” (p. 5).

The individual essays in this volume tend to corroborate the aforementioned initial hypothesis. The introductory part of the book ‘The Legal Context’ is written by David Weissbrodt (Chapter 1) and Kristy Belton (Chapter 2). The volume first lays a foundation of relevant international treaties and laws that guarantee the rights that protect non-citizens. With a broad geographical scope, this volume provides a wide-ranging theoretical and legal framework to understand particular ambiguities, paradoxes, and evolution of citizenship regimes in the twenty-first century. The volume loses some cohesion as a result (especially as these divisions do not correspond with the book’s arrangement into five parts), but this does not detract from the fundamental interest of individual chapters.

Weissbrodt (Chapter 1) argues that the international human rights law formally protects non-citizens. Nevertheless, in practice, non-citizens are often not in a position to assert their rights. There “remains a disjuncture between those prescribed rights and the realities that noncitizens must face”, often by reason of xenophobia and racism (p. 27). Non-citizens do not have much freedom as “rights granted to documented and undocumented migrant workers are not identical” (p. 28). Belton (Chapter 2) examines the widespread phenomenon of statelessness and argues that, not only is it a violation of the right to a nationality, but it also “leads to slippage in an individual’s ability to enjoy many of the other rights promulgated in the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights]” (p. 40).

Myanmar/Burma: Rohingya’s internally displaced people. photo credit: Mathias Eick, EU/ECHO.

Part II examines three case studies of group statelessness. Members of these groups are not recognised as the nationals of any state. Michal Baer (Chapter 3) describes a detailed historical portrait of a very precarious citizenship status of Palestinians. Nassir Uddin (Chapter 4) examines the plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, and their mass migration from Myanmar since the 1990s. As one of Nassir’s Rohingya informants put it “Since we are considered as illegal residents, we can’t seek help from law enforcing agencies….We are the people who belong to no state” (pp. 70-71). Carolina Moulin (Chapter 5) explains how a seemingly minor change to the Brazilian Constitution in 1994 made over 200,000 children born to Brazilian parents abroad to suddenly become stateless when the government issued a requirement that all Brazilian citizens must have resided within its borders and undergone a judicial process upon legal age. The eventual reversal of that policy in 2007 offered a valuable example of “restrictive and slippery citizenship regimes” (p. 90).

Part III, entitled ‘Legislated Limbo’, analyses the impact of legal frameworks in generating or perpetrating gaps in citizenship. Odinkalu (Chapter 6) provides a powerful account of the failure of politics to establish any meaningful concept of “internal citizenship” in postcolonial Nigeria. In Nigeria, as elsewhere in Africa, the “arbitrary territorializations” (p .97) of colonial rule and subsequent independence have led to the tribalisation of citizenship over the “colonized native” (p. 98). The author advocates for a sociological conception of citizenship, namely, for a “set of practices…which define a person as a competent member of society” (p. 2), rather than for a legal conception that is conveyed in the rest of the chapter.

Ramachandran (Chapter 7) describes the uncertain status of a Bangladeshi resident in India, who has been treated by India as citizen for a lengthy period. The term “slippery citizenship” is raised here to capture “the ambiguities, unpredictability, and lack of consistency attached to the citizenship status” (p. 118) of these Bangla-Indians. Some of these people are now perceived to be non-citizens, even though they hold official documents that can only be issued to citizens.

Chapters 8 and 9 of part III focus on the vulnerable groups—children and Roma. Jacqueline Bhabha and Margareta Matache’s passionate essay (Chapter 8) argues that children are often deprived of their economic, social, and cultural rights, especially if they are members of minorities that suffer from discrimination. They call this progress a “slimy” citizenship, where the appearance of uniform entitlement to state benefits is “belied by deeply embedded discrimination, supported by tacit acceptance or self-serving justification” (p. 138). These children certainly need protection from the state in terms of education, healthcare, and shelter. Bhabha and Matache conclude that “citizenship will remain at best a slippery vehicle for the delivery of rights” so long as statecraft is characterised by dishonest tactics and weak law enforcement (p. 144). Ethnicity is a common basis for discrimination with regard to European Roma as illustrated by O’Nions (Chapter 9). After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, many Roma people were denied European Union’s citizenship and its associated privileges. As a result, O’Nions views “the problem of Roma inequality…[as] quite possibly Europe’s biggest human rights challenge” (p. 157).

Part IV examines labour migrants in the US and Canada. Nancy Hiemstra and Alison Mountz (Chapter 10) describe the highly contested space of membership and migration in the US. A child’s right to a family and a citizen’s right to protection from deportation and rights and privileges are removed from the various “tiers of access to citizenship” developed by the US (p. 162). Hiemstra and Mountz document how, in recent years, the architecture of the American immigration law has intensified “the proliferation of slopes to illegality and partial citizenship” (p. 174). Janet McLaughlin and Jenna Hennebry (Chapter 11) focus on Canada and criticise temporary labour migration programmes that allow the state to “benefit from cheap labour without confronting the ethical dilemmas of denying citizenship rights” (p. 181).

The final section of the book titled ‘Emerging Issues and Models’ concludes the volume with four chapters. Thomas Faist (Chapter 12) proposes that citizenship is determined by jus sanguinis (right of blood); until recently, you could not be a German citizen if your parents were not citizens, even if you were born in the country. He argues that the “borders of …citizenship as an instrument of social closure are gradually shifting” (p. 194). Kim Rygiel and Walton-Roberts (Chapter 13), interrogate the growing acceptance of multiple citizenships by using India and Canada as examples. Their main argument is that the respective governments “strategically use different forms of citizenship to manage populations within the logics of neoliberalism and securitization” (p.  210).

Taung Paw Camp in Rakhine State – Burma. photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Audrey Macklin (Chapter 14) presents an interesting counterpoint to the other chapters. Whereas previous chapters are primarily concerned with the acquisition of citizenship that is hard to get and easy to lose (hence the ‘slippery’ metaphor of the book’s subtitle), Macklin’s chapter focuses on situations in which states seek to stick citizenship on an unwilling reciepient (“sticky citizenship”). Macklin convincingly justifies her inquiry as more than a curiosity in a world “preoccupied with the predicament of those who seek citizenship” (p. 223).

It is evident that The Human Right to Citizenship offers a fascinating account of a subject matter that is significant to a proper understanding of international migration. The crux of the book is that “citizenship is the one human right whose meaning is bounded by territory and is thus tied invariably to claims of sovereignty” (p. 99). Citizenship and nationality— as legal, social, and political concepts— have never been more important, or more contested, than at the present day. This volume brings many aspects of the topic to our attention in a work that is lucidly presented, helpfully decorated with maps, thoroughly indexed, and substantially error-free. This is a stimulating book that deserves wide readership across many disciplines. This book offers great reading material that will change the vocabulary you use for one of our society’s most pressing humanitarian issues today.