Statelessness: You don’t understand citizenship

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I have written before about the misunderstood and taken-for-granted nature of citizenship. In many countries, you can be born somewhere and live there your entire life and still not be a citizen. In some countries, your citizenship will be stripped from you when you leave the country for some period of time. It is potentially a more fluid state of being than one imagines. As I have argued before, most people don’t think about it until something happens that forces them to.

I just watched a documentary on Al Jazeera English covering the stateless citizen problem in Greece for the Turkish minority there.

One woman has spent more than 20 years as a stateless person – born in Greece, her citizenship was revoked when she went to Turkey and married a Turkish man, but she cannot get Turkish citizenship without a Greek passport to give the authorities. She is not legally allowed to work in Turkey – she only has a residence permit – so survives on her husband’s pension. She was not able to travel back to Greece to attend her own father’s funeral.

The laws in Greece have shifted throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, but many of these displaced people have been unable to find their place or legal recourse through any of the changes. One such change in the law was to implement a process by which former citizens could reclaim their Greek citizenship – but the process was more like naturalizing a foreigner who was becoming Greek for the first time, which struck most people as discriminatory. The thinking being – a person who has lived in Greece all her life is not a foreigner, and should not have to declare that she is for the sake of getting her nationality back.

As I wrote above – people don’t think about these things until something happens that forces them to. In an article in The Guardian, writer Kamila Shamsie describes, based on her own experience migrating to the UK, the uncertain citizenship journey. First, when a person moves to a new country, s/he assumes that the path is laid out clearly. If she just follows the rules, she is on the right course to achieving citizenship. It’s just a matter of time.

But, as I, the Al Jazeera story and Shamsie point out: immigration and citizenship laws are in constant flux. You might be staying in the country of your dreams legally – for now – and have a good handle on what you have to do and be, following all the steps to the letter. But by no means is that the end of it. Until you have the new nationality confirmed, in your hands, you are not home free. Something can always change, making the feeling of settling down and finding a comfort level almost impossible and out of reach. As Shamsie wrote: “I wasn’t prepared for the mutable nature of immigration laws, and their ability to make migrants feel perpetually insecure, particularly as the rhetoric around migration mounted.

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