The Citizenship Industry



From The Nation:

While you may have no reason to enter the passport marketplace, you may nevertheless know of Henley & Partners from its annual visa-restrictions index, which ranks countries according to passport prestige, or how many other countries a passport permits its holder to enter without a visa. Germany and the United Kingdom are the world’s top passports, permitting unrestricted travel to 173 countries. I rank pathetically low on the prestige scale. I was born in Afghanistan, raised in Syria, and possess a Pakistani passport. Afghanistan is the worst passport in the world to hold, with Pakistan being the fourth worst. Syria ranks fifth from the bottom, though one can expect its stock to drop in Henley’s 2016 index. My grandmother, by comparison, was an Iranian Kurd. The Iranians rank only four spots higher than the Syrians. The Kurds can trace their ethnic identity as far back as 612 BCE, but because they are famously and historically stateless they don’t even make the list.

The disparities of the citizenship industry—whereby the wealthy are able to move freely across boundaries while the poor die trying in places like the Mediterranean and the Aegean—are obvious, and a glaring reminder of globalization’s inequalities and systemic unfairness. But Abrahamian explains that those who support the sale of citizenship argue that the very idea of “assigning people to places is feudalism and anarchy.” In the 21st century, how can it possibly matter where one is born? Or worse, even, where one’s parents were born? Why can’t citizenship be chosen rather than arbitrarily handed down? “The sale of citizenship is interesting not because it is scandalous or even morally reprehensible,” Abrahamian concludes, “but because it speaks to the very arbitrariness of the concept of belonging to a nation to begin with.”

So, too, do the efforts of citizens trying to shed their nationality. Abrahamian examines two cases. Garry Davis renounced his US citizenship in 1948, when he was 26. Fresh out of service as an Air Force pilot, it occurred to him that “nationalism, not human nature, was responsible for the bloodshed that had taken place.” Davis proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” and traveled far and wide on a homemade cardboard world passport, campaigning for “frontierlessness.” (Davis presented one of his passports to Edward Snowden, whose US passport was revoked in 2013.) Roger Ver was less romantic about renouncing his passport. After deciding that he no longer wanted to be a part of a “country he considered violent, coercive and immoral,” Ver returned his American passport and bought citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis. Ver is also a supporter of Bitcoin, the decentralized digital currency (“money without borders is a world without borders”). Ver and Davis share the notion that nationality is “limiting and unfair,” and both have spoken of the freedom they felt at cutting their ties to their birth country. But in an important distinction, Ver has no burning desire to be stateless.

The tangle involved in obtaining American citizenship is nothing compared with the process of trying to renounce it. The passport holder must not only be on foreign soil, book an appointment, and wait out the waiting list period, but must also pay an “exit fee” of over $2,000. Those whose net worth is greater than $2 million have the added pleasure of paying an “exit tax.”

 “Flattened for a Price”, Fatima Bhutto, The Nation

Photographs by Ian Mackenzie.