Investor citizenship must not be used as a remedy for statelessness

Jelena Dzankic, GLOBALCIT coordinator
/ 5 mins read

When I started to look into the sale of passports a decade ago, there had been hardly any academic research on the topic. Yet with the increasing number of countries entering the global market for investor citizenship, a new academic field has started to develop around the notion of ius pecuniae (the law of money). It focuses on states’ discretion to naturalise on the basis of national interest, or on the detailed schemes ran by countries themselves or franchised to non-state actors. 

At present, a total of 115 countries in the world have the discretion to naturalise individuals who make a special contribution to the state – be it in the domain of art, culture, sports or economics. These provisions are rarely used, and information on the names and numbers of people admitted on these grounds are commonly not published. The known examples include people such as the French actor Gerard Depardieu who became a naturalised Russian citizen. Another example would be Taksin Shinawatra – the former Prime Minister of Thailand - convicted for corruption and abuse of power in his country - who was granted the Montenegrin citizenship for special contribution to the state’s economy. Only a handful of countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, Bulgaria, Commonwealth of Dominica, Comoros, Cyprus, Malta, Montenegro, Moldova, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Turkey run special programmes with designated pecuniary and other conditions.

To obtain the passport of any of these countries, an individual needs to invest or donate several hundred thousand euros, making the sale of passports available only to the world’s richest individuals. Yet one issue that has recently captured my attention in this regard is the controversial relationship between statelessness and the sale of passports.

States may refuse to recognise individuals or groups as their citizens, generating thereby large populations with undefined statuses that limit their access to rights in the states of residence, as well as rendering them stateless. The well-known examples include the ethnic Russian populations in the Baltic States and the Bidoons in the Arab countries. In such cases, states shirk responsibility towards these groups by refusing to grant them full citizenship rights.  In an extreme case of avoidance of responsibility towards a non-citizen population, the governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait purchased the Comorian passports for Bidoons living in their respective countries.

There are hundreds of thousands of Bidoons in the UAE and Kuwait, mostly descendants of nomadic tribes from the Arabian peninsula. For a variety of reasons, they have not been registered as citizens in these Gulf countries, rendering them (and their children) stateless. From the mid-1980s, the situation of the Bidoons has been aggravated as they have been officially designated as ‘illegal residents’. The UAE and Kuwait maintain that the Bidoons have settled in their territories illegally to make claims to welfare and social protection. As a result, this sizeable population has been deprived of many basic rights, including healthcare, education and even the possession of property. The situation of Bidoons has been continuously criticised by human rights organisations, as described in an earlier ENS blog.  The 2011 report of the Human Rights Watch highlighted that international human rights norms create an obligation for governments to ensure “civil documentation for all residents, whether legal or illegal, including a child’s right to registration upon birth, and the right to marry and found a family”. In Kuwait, for instance, the Bidoons have been unable to obtain the basic civil documentation, including birth, death and marriage documents. According to Minority Rights Group, Bidoons are continuously discriminated against in terms of vocational and employment opportunities, contributing to their social marginalisation and poverty.

The ‘rejection’ of the Bidoons has further been aggravated when the governments of the UAE and Kuwait entered an agreement with the Union of the Comoros, a small volcanic archipelago off the coast of East Africa, in 2008 and 2014 respectively, to purchase passports for the Gulf’s stateless. The individual purchase of passports has been possible in the Comoros since 2001. Yet in November 2008 the country adopted the Law on Economic Citizenship, which foresaw the grant of the country’s passports by presidential decree for a minimum investment specified in the yearly budget.

On the basis of the 2008 legislation, the government of UAE arranged an investment of $200 million in the Comorian infrastructure in exchange for passports for 4,000 Bidoon families. A few years later, Kuwait followed suit and invested several hundred thousand million US dollars in exchange for 36,000 Comorian passports. Once they had obtained the Comorian passports, the Bidoons ‘ceased to be stateless’, but the new passports explicitly forbade them to enter the African island. New passports also made them vulnerable to deportation from their countries of residence. This shows a twofold ‘refusal’ mechanism of states to accept responsibility for an ‘unwanted’ group through investor citizenship. First, the absence of any international norm forbidding the wholesale (or the sale) of passports has enabled the UAE and Kuwait to ‘get around’ the statelessness issue, thus raising a number of human rights concerns. Second, as Peter Spiro highlighted, Comoros is likely to ‘refuse’ to extend diplomatic protection to individuals with whom it has no substantial connection and who had never set foot on its soil. This happened, for instance, in the case of the Bidoon advocate Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq to whom the UAE offered a choice between an indefinite prison sentence and a Comorian passport. He chose the latter, and was eventually granted asylum in Canada. Yet as noted by Atossa Abrahamian, the author of The Cosmopolites: the Coming of the Global Citizen, ‘no jurisprudence exists to determine how Comoran “expatriates” will be treated by foreign countries and courts’.

Refusal of legal and political responsibility can create populations whose rights are limited both domestically and internationally. For this reason, I argue in The Global Market for Investor Citizenship that resolving statelessness through investor citizenship is highly problematic. The sale of passports can indeed formally fulfil the function of allocating status to individuals. In the context of the Comoros, one of the poorest states in the world, it may have been used as a mechanism for enhancing the economic outlook of the country, had corruption not gotten in the way.  However, the mass purchase of the Comorian passports by the UAE and Kuwait is a major case of refusal of political responsibility towards a stateless community. And we should think long and hard about the implications of this case.  The wholesale of passports can absolve countries from responsibility towards an ‘undesired’ population living in its territory. Is that the right way to address statelessness?

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