To be a citizen is to be a member of a political community. For the Greeks, the relevant political community was the city, although Diogenes did consider himself to be a citizen of the ‘cosmos’. As the world is currently constituted, citizenship amounts to membership of a nation state, although regional organizations may give rise to other forms. For example European Union citizenship is additional to national citizenship of an EU member state (although dependent on it) and gives rise to additional rights.

Citizenship is defined both internally, in terms of the rights and duties citizens hold as members of the state, and externally, by the rules which distinguish members from non-members. While much debate concerns internal membership, the external boundary of citizenship cannot be overlooked, as it determines who has access to the goods and burdens of internal membership, and defines the journey people have to undertake if they want to traverse the boundary from the outside to the inside.

The external rules of membership vary between states, but there are general features that most systems have in common. The most straightforward method is birth, either being born within the state’s territory (jus soli) or being born to someone who is already a citizen (jus sanguinis). Here, citizenship is not chosen by you or the state you are a member of: you simply find that you are a member of a particular state, and the state finds that you are a member. The other main method is migration: travel from one state to another and the aquisition of residence according to legal conditions for membership. Here, membership is through choice, and the choice can run in either direction: you may be able to choose a particular state to join, and the state may have the choice of whether to accept you as a member. The scope for choice here, though, can be limited. In the end, it is the state which retains the position of power, in that it decides the rules and can vary them in any way it wishes. So when it comes to birth, it can decide whether jus soli or jus sanguinis holds, can define its territory, or can vary the relations you must have with people who are already citizens. When it comes to migration, it can close the door on would-be citizens entirely, or can vary the conditions would-be citizens must meet to qualify, or it can retain the right to choose even when migrants have met all conditions.

Journeys to citizenship can therefore be complex and filled with obstacles and dangers, and it is the migration route that is the most complex, as the would-be citizen negotiates the national border. We tend to think of borders as simple binaries with an inside and an outside, but borders as the external markers of membership are multidimensional, and identify different obstacles and spaces where the journey may come to a premature end.

The first boundary the migrant must cross is to gain access to the national territory as a physical space. In Europe, this part of the journey is becoming more difficult and dangerous, as states put up more barriers to make access to territory harder to achieve. Immigration, especially across Europe’s southern borders with Africa, has become increasingly criminalized, forcing migrants to take ever more perilous routes which, for many, end in death. So one space where the journey may come to a premature end is the sea. Those that do make landfall may find themselves in the space of detention camps scattered across the Mediterranean and southern Europe, a space they may struggle to escape.

If they do escape into the national territory, they may, if they are poor, need to exist within it in a fragile form, as undocumented or ‘illegal’ migrants, inside the territory, but outside legality, vulnerable to exploitation, persecution and deportation. If they establish legal presence within the territory, it may be in a temporary form, as a guest worker or with a limited visa. This is still a vulnerable and unpredictable space, and they may find themselves travelling backwards, away from citizenship, as the presence they thought was legal becomes questioned and revised by the state. If they achieve indefinite leave to remain, they can exist as ‘denizens’ rather than ‘citizens’, but this is becoming an increasingly narrow option, as states continually revise and tighten the conditions attached to ‘denizenship’. This is because it provides the gateway to the final stage of the journey, full citizenship.

Here, we might think, the migrant-citizen has found safety and stability – here we have a predictable space in which they can develop their life stories and enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as their fellow citizens. But there are two challenges that remain. The first is that their ‘belonging’ as citizens may be questioned as they ‘fail’ to fit a national identity, and the state and other citizens refuse to accept them fully. They may suffer harassment and persecution from other citizens and from political authorities who constantly examine and question their presence.

The second is that states are increasingly claiming the right to withdraw citizenship, and the migrant citizen is particularly vulnerable to this. In the European Union, while 14 countries can withdraw citizenship based on behaviour contrary to the interests of the state, eight of them apply this to only naturalized citizens, and seven have no safeguards against this resulting in statelessness. Although the UK does not discriminate in this way, from 2003 citizenship could be withdrawn from those with dual citizenship on grounds of behaviour prejudicial to the national interests, and from 2006, if this is considered to be ‘conducive to the public good’. This power is held by the Home Secretary. Although this can happen to citizens by birth, the majority of people who have had their citizenship withdrawn in this way since 2002 have been citizens by migration, and even where they are citizens by birth, their parents have been immigrants.

The danger is that migrant citizenship remains a distinct space of fragility and uncertainty, rather than an equally valued and secure way of being a citizen.

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