‘Our citizenship is expensive!’

Kristin Surak

  • The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
    Columbia Global Reports, 166 pp, £10.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 9909763 6 3

In 1987, the free-market economist Gary Becker proposed selling the right to live and work in the United States. For $50,000 potential residents, especially the rich and successful, could leap over the bureaucratic hurdles that confound most would-be Americans. But Becker didn’t think the poor should be excluded: he proposed that the government or employers should loan them the money to pay for entry. It has been a while since the US relied on indentured labour, but why shouldn’t it work now as in the past?

What seemed shocking in 1987 has become commonplace. For a £2 million investment in UK government bonds or shares in a UK company, the well-heeled can purchase a Tier 1 Investor Visa, and secure the right to reside in Britain. Another £3 million will lower the waiting time for permanent residence and citizenship. That’s a lot of money, but permanent residence or the possession of a UK passport gives investors the right to cash in the investment, and most of them do (if they cash UK bonds after five years the direct benefit to the UK is less than £10,000).

Under the US’s EB-5 programme, an investment of $500,000 into a business venture in a region of high unemployment (Beverly Hills qualifies) will secure a visa which allows its holder to live in the US and apply for permanent citizenship after two years. If you don’t want to wait that long, €2.5 million will buy Cypriot citizenship – and thereby EU citizenship – for the whole family within 90 days. Five Caribbean island nations with visa-free entry to Europe offer the same for around $250,000. Few statuses are as arbitrary as citizenship, or as consequential for determining life chances. To have been born in Copenhagen rather than Bujumbura is to have won the birthright lottery. Some don’t even get a ticket: the UN estimates that around ten million are stateless. ‘In this context,’ Atossa Araxia Abrahamian observes in The Cosmopolites, ‘the sale of citizenship is interesting not because it is scandalous or even morally reprehensible, but because it speaks to the very arbitrariness of the concept of belonging to a nation to begin with.’

Abrahamian is the child of Armenian-Russian parents with Iranian citizenship. Born in Canada and raised in Geneva, she is now the holder of three passports, never exactly sure where she belongs. While living in New York, her visa running out, she entered the ‘diversity visa lottery’, which gives away 50,000 green cards every year to people from countries with low immigration rates. She was lucky, for a moment: when she went to collect her green card, she found her winning ticket was invalid. The American government didn’t consider her Swiss because she wasn’t born there, and Canadians weren’t eligible for the draw. Over two thousand years ago, Diogenes declared himself a kosmopolites – citizen of the universe – but who are the cosmopolites of today?

The search for answers takes Abrahamian, a reporter for al-Jazeera, on a global mission. The Comoros is an archipelago of volcanic outcroppings between Madagascar and Mozambique. The islands’ economy is based on a few ‘luxury’ crops – vanilla, spices and the ylang-ylang flower – but, for the most part, the Comoros is underdeveloped. The roads have more potholes than asphalt, the hospitals regularly close for lack of supplies, teachers haven’t been paid in months and tourists are unknown. On the largest island, 60 per cent of the inhabitants have access to electricity, while only 20 per cent of those on the smallest island do.

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