Citizenship used to be a cherished status, taken seriously by those who held it. But in today’s globalized world, it has become a commodity that can be bought and sold.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist Atossa Abrahamian, senior editor of The Nation and author of the 2015 book The Cosmopolites, delves into the world of “global citizens.”
She explains how multiple passports are becoming more popular as a status symbol, and a plan B for those who want to live in several countries. Some nations are turning citizenship into a business, selling economic citizenship (tax havens) as a product, and offering citizenship to the wealthy, while making it more difficult for the poor to obtain it.
Abrahamian warns that this commodification of citizenship may weaken its value and lead to criminal dangers.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. To be a citizen of a nation used to mean a special bond with that country. Whether it was your land of birth or perhaps your parents’ homeland, citizenship often carried with it an emotional, legal, sometimes physical, and almost moral bond. Today, a lot of that has changed. As the elites strive to become citizens of the world, as tax havens become more accepted even beyond the one-tenth of 1%, as dual passports become a status symbol in high-end airport lounges around the globe, and more recently, as nations try and find creative ways to deal with stateless refugees and immigrants, citizenship has become a commodity.
What this means for the value of the nation-state, its impact on nationalism, its trigger potential for the nostalgia of days gone by, and the credibility of nations that sell citizenships to the highest bidder are all issues that impact both geopolitics and local politics. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Atossa Abrahamian. She watched this transformation and wrote about it in her book Cosmopolites.
Atossa Abrahamian is a journalist based in New York and is a senior editor at The Nation. She’s worked as an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America and a general news and business reporter for Reuters. She grew up in Geneva and studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Columbia where she returned to the master’s program in investigative reporting. And she’s the author of the 2015 award-winning book Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen.
It is my pleasure to welcome Atossa Abrahamian here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Atossa, thanks so much for joining us.
Atossa Abrahamian: Hi, Jeff. The pleasure is all mine.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. As all of this has changed with respect to citizenship, the selling of citizenship, which we’ll talk about, and the sense of the elites, in particular, wanting to be citizens of the world, it really has changed it seems fundamentally what it means to be a citizen of anywhere. Talk a little bit about that first.
Atossa: Yes, so whether it’s actually changed something or revealed the contradictions that have always been there, that’s an open question, but as you pointed out in your introduction, people used to feel quite attached to their nations. Again, whether this is mythology or something real that’s up for debate, right? But if you surveyed the average European citizen or Indian citizen or Japanese citizen 50 years ago, you might have a pretty different answer as to whether they felt deeply bound to their homeland.
Now, people want to move more. People feel different types of allegiances. Because of people moving, they might have more than one passport and so I think that that’s a pretty expected byproduct of globalization and it’s one that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around.
Jeff: Dual passports, for example, have become almost a kind of status symbol.
Atossa: Yes, for sure. Having two citizenships can be really useful if you’re a person who travels a lot or has business around the world because it just opens up so many more doors to you. It means you can travel more freely in certain parts of the world. It means you can register a company. It means in some cases that you can have certain access to certain types of bank accounts or privileges. And yes, so if you’re just that person, it’s a status symbol and it’s almost like many people come by their second citizenships “honestly” but many people seek them out just as a plan B.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about what you discovered in researching Cosmopolites where nations now are using this as a commodity that they can sell in various ways.
Atossa: So countries realized that there was a demand for people obtaining a second citizenship in different ways. In some cases, like in Canada’s case, there’s been a long tradition of birth tourism, people going to Canada to have babies so that they would have Canadian citizenship by birthright. I happen — full disclosure — I’m one of these babies, so that was one way of doing it. But then, as this practice became more and more known and established among certain circles in the Middle East or in China or Russia, some consultants came along and said, “Well, what if we just turn this into a business?
“Why don’t we find a way so that pregnant women don’t have to fly around the world when they’re seven months pregnant to have babies and just let these rich people buy passports instead?” and so that’s what happened. You had this small group of consultants approaching countries that had already made quite a good business selling access to other laws like tax laws — I’m thinking in this case about Saint Kitts and Nevis — pitching them on creating investor citizenship or economic citizenship and helping to market it around the world and, let me tell you, it was a hit.
Jeff: And then, of course, countries found out that they could do this in bulk. Talk about that.
Atossa: Yes. That’s a little bit more unusual. And that, to my knowledge, it’s only happened once. But in addition to there being these stateless rich people who are just sad and they don’t really have a home, and they have all these passports, and business ties and what have you, there are people in the world who don’t have any citizenship at all. That’s usually because they’re being deprived of this right by the country they live in. And in the United Arab Emirates, in particular, there’s a large number of stateless people on the order of 40,000, , there’s about 10,000.
It’s not great for a country to have stateless people either because they can’t keep tabs on people who don’t have documentation. At the same time in the Emirates, if you’re an Emirati citizen, you’ve got it made. You get — there’s a very generous welfare, they help you buy a house, they help you get married. There’s just a lot of financial welfare for Emiratis so there’s a reason that they don’t want to just give their passport away to just anybody and they don’t like the stateless people for political reasons.
Instead of documenting them with Emirati papers, the Abu Dhabi authorities struck a deal with the Island of the Comoros, this is a sovereign nation in the Indian Ocean, an island nation, and the Comoros provided some 40,000 – 50,000 citizenships to people who had none in the Emirates.
Jeff: And these were people that never had been to the Island of Comoros and probably never will be.
Atossa: Oh, yes, I mean, if they’d even heard of it in the first place. I consider myself someone who knows the map and I didn’t know what the Comoros Islands were a country before I embarked on this project. It’s not a place that is on most people’s radar and that’s actually why this plan worked because when it’s a small country, it’s pretty remote, not a ton of media go there so not a lot of people found out about it and they were able to pull off this plan without too many people complaining about it.
Jeff: Have other nations considered this or thought about taking advantage of it, either in a place like Comoros or a similar place?
Atossa: Kuwait was kicking around this idea with the Comoros as well and there were some negotiations that didn’t pan out. Kuwait also has quite a sizable stateless population. The only analogous scenario I can think of, which, it’s a little bit different but it’s operating on the same principle is when countries try to send asylum seekers who arrive at their borders to another country.
The UK was talking about sending asylum seekers who were coming to the UK to Rwanda just a couple of months ago. To my knowledge, no asylum seekers have been sent to Rwanda but this offshoring of populations that are unwanted, for whatever reason — that is definitely a trend and I imagine that this will continue gathering steam as time passes.
Jeff: What impact has this had that you’ve seen in terms of the waves and rise of nationalism that we see around the world, this sense that people are more or less connected to countries and those that long for days gone by become more nationalistic?
Atossa: I don’t think that there is necessarily a correlation between the people who object to these practices and the degree of their nationalism. In other words, nationalist politicians are just as complicit in selling passports as “globalist politicians” or liberal politicians, or what have you. This is a pretty hardcore neoliberal type of project. As we just have to look at the various nationalists who have been elected; they have no problem with these types of economic policies. I think that there’s quite a bit of hypocrisy going on. The broader question of whether the commoditization of citizenship and turning it into a product like a pair of sneakers, whether this weakens the perceived value of the nation, sure — but you also have to remember that people are buying into nations by buying passports. So, they’re not dismantling the entire concept. They’re just revealing that everything has a price, even a nation.
Jeff: In the years since you first started looking at this, have you seen an increase in the commodification of passports around the world?
Atossa: Oh, for sure. When I started reporting on this, it was 2011, 2012, just a small handful of countries were selling passports. Since then, it’s really exploded. Every month, you hear about a new country that’s looking into it. Armenia, I think is considering it. There’s always Caribbean countries that are kicking this around. So it’s become a pretty standard economic development tactic. Countries that don’t have a lot of money really have to be creative and resourceful, and this is a resource they have that — and when you think about it, it doesn’t pollute the environment, it doesn’t cost them anything, it can create some PR problems and you definitely want to make sure that criminals don’t get in.
Cyprus had some problems when it became apparent that they’d provided a Cypriot, a citizenship, which is also EU citizenship to some pretty notorious criminals out in Malaysia but the cost of this, besides the reputational cost is quite low for countries. And so it makes sense that this is what they resort to once they realize they’re in a bad economic situation, or just when they want to attract rich people and make a little extra cash.
Jeff: We’ve seen it in western countries, even where it goes along with buying citizenship comes along with buying property.
Atossa: Yes, you could get a citizenship or a residence permit. So in Malta, you could get a citizenship. Part of the package was you buy or rent an apartment or a house. Portugal was doing something similar, not with citizenship, but with essentially the Portuguese green card, a permanent residence. It’s hard to find a country that doesn’t offer permanent residents for money. The US has a program called the EB-5 program that essentially sells green cards. Canada has a version of this. It depends on the province. Most European countries have a version of this.
Look, countries just really like rich people, I guess and they want to make it as easy for rich people to come live there as possible while making it as difficult as possible for poor people.
Jeff: What, if anything, has been the pushback to this? Are there any nations, western nations, or any place that has pushed back to this idea, perhaps even under the guise of it bringing in criminal elements?
Atossa: Yes, so the European Union, it’s not a nation, but it’s a group of nations; the EU is not a fan of this. They think that it undermines the European Union’s unity. They think that it can lead to crime. And so the EU has taken issue with some of its member states’ decision to sell citizenship, namely Malta and Cyprus to a point, and it’s actually starting to adjudicate this. We’ll see what happens. My hunch is they’re not going to be successful because after all, it is a country’s sovereign right to decide who belongs to it. It’s really hard to tell a country you have to make this person a citizen when they’re dealing with stateless people so it’s also hard to say you’re not allowed to make this person a citizen if they’re dealing with someone they want.
So that kind of pushback’s been there. There are countries that probably would never do this because it’s not really what they’re — I don’t see France ever selling their citizenship outright because of the way that they perceive themselves. Pushback also comes from certain political groups and interest groups and whatnot, but I don’t know that there’s any particular country that’s leading the way in advocating against this.
Jeff: Has it made it easier at all for criminal elements to travel around the world? Has there been evidence from groups like Interpol or international organizations to say that this has become a problem in that respect?
Atossa: So for travel, I’m not sure because if somebody’s on an Interpol list, they’re on the list whether they’re from Greece or Malaysia or China, or — their photo’s there, you know? And so unless they’re wearing a funny hat and a fake mustache and crossing the border like that, I think that would be the limiting factor. There’s biometric information floating around. So I think Interpol probably has ways of preventing people from traveling on second or third passports. Having another citizenship can make it easier for criminals, say, to open bank accounts in other countries or to go under the radar in other capacities, maybe not as physical people, but as business people or for tax purposes or what have you.
So, yes, for sure and you can just look at — There are lots of known instances of wanted alleged criminals obtaining second citizenship so it’s definitely a part of the business. I don’t know that it’s the motivating primary part of the business. Criminals aren’t always the most reliable clientele because they do tend to get caught and thrown in jail, but they’re there for sure.
Jeff: Talk about the cost of this, for the elites, for example, seeking these passports. What does it cost? What does that framework look like?
Atossa: If you’re going through official channels, you’re looking at a few hundred thousand dollars to start going up to over a million. Some of the Caribbean countries were on the lower end of that. The European countries, of course, are on the higher end of that. And then if you go through back channels, a few years ago, someone in Comoros told me for a few thousand dollars, you can get a Comoros passport but that wasn’t strictly above board.
Jeff: Talk about who’s making the money from this. Is it the countries? Is it groups within the countries?
Atossa: Yes, so countries, when they set up these “official programs”, there’s typically a fund where the money goes and the fund is supposed to benefit that nation. Let’s say that happens; they get that money. If you’re selling real estate — There’s a whole economy around this. So if real estate is part of the transaction, there’s the real estate brokers, there’s the sellers, there’s the lawyers, there’s that whole bit of cottage industry.
Then there’s the consultants or lawyers that actually process the immigration side of things both in the country and for the client. And I referred to them earlier, these consultants who really have set up the industry, and they’re taking fees, several thousand, maybe tens of thousands of dollars depending on the clients and they’re just taking that cut as part of the fee. Beyond that, there have been reports of bribery, of crooked politicians, of bureaucrats that are making a little on the side. So there’s also the informal side of things where maybe a little corruption comes into play.
Jeff: Are there more and more Americans that are participating in this?
Atossa: Yes, yes. I recently saw an article that American interest in second or third citizenship has surged, a combination of things. A few months ago things in the US — There was a lot of gun violence so I think anecdotally, that contributed to people trying to move or at least have a plan B. These were people who were worried about their kids. And again, this is anecdotal. I did a little reporting around it and it really shook people up. Taxes are a perennial issue for Americans who don’t like taxes, politics, and finally COVID.
I think when COVID hit and also countries had closed their borders, Americans who are used to being able to go wherever the heck they want, because they have a very good passport for travel, saw themselves shut out of everywhere in the world and not everyone was happy with that. And so to prevent this from happening in the future, I think there was a surge of interest in second citizenship as an insurance policy. If there’s another pandemic and you want to leave the US, at least you’ll have another place that is legally obligated to take you in as a citizen.
Jeff: And what is the gold standard in these passports? If you want to be able to travel anywhere, stay as long as you want, what’s the gold standard these days?
Atossa: I think any European passport, any EU passport is really good. Canada has a good passport. The US, all things considered, is still pretty good. Every year, these consultants who work on this publish lists, and yes, the top five always fluctuate, but any western or wealthy Asian country is a pretty good bet.
Jeff: And obviously, this is a business that’s going to continue to grow.
Atossa: Yes. Unless something crazy happens. We’ll see what the EU pulls off with their protests against this business. And we’ll also see where the politics of individual nations go but I don’t expect this business to stop thriving anytime soon.
Jeff: And finally, what are nations that you think that may not be actively in this business now but maybe in a few years will be?
Atossa: Well, again, we’ll see what happens in Europe but I imagine there are a handful of countries in Europe who would like to make a little extra money in this way if it meant not getting into trouble with the EU. Let’s see, the usual suspects are small countries, island nations, countries that were once colonized by another power, and tax havens. Any countries that fit those descriptions I think would be likely sellers.
Jeff: Atossa Abrahamian, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Atossa: My pleasure, Jeff. Take care.
Jeff: You too. Thank you.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you’ll join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.