Ports of opportunity

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]olitically, citizenship defines an individual’s place in a national hierarchy. An international relations scholar would tell you that citizenship gives a person not only rights and responsibilities, but also obligations. In return, the issuing state agrees to protect the individual while having — to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes — power over them.
The time when an individual pledged allegiance to a single country has passed. Today, it is not unusual for people, including some University of Toronto students, to hold one or more citizenships. An incentive for having multiple citizenships is that people are entitled to different benefits, such as the ability to travel to different countries. In a world where jobs are mobile and opportunities are global, this is a powerful privilege.

Allowing an individual to travel is just the beginning. Passports also define where a person can work. The right passport can give an owner access to an ocean of opportunities, while the wrong one can condemn him or her to mountains of visa applications, often with uncertain outcomes.

In an increasingly complex political climate where borders are closely monitored, how is citizenship valued today and what does its evolving definition mean for immigrants across the world?


Writing for the 1843 Economist magazine, Matthew Valencia argued that political instability encourages wealthy citizens of a given country to try and acquire different passports. He estimated that the demand for residency permits and citizenship papers is highest in emerging economies, increasing at a rate of 15–20 per cent per annum. This suggests that the pursuit of multiple citizenships has a distinct economic dimension to it. As we have seen, this economic dimension is also applicable to the work-permit application process because it defines where a person can work and live.

Additionally, it is essential to understand that only one per cent of passport shoppers are involved in illegal activity, while the rest are simply hedging their political bets.

So, which countries offer residency permits and citizenships for cash? According to the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index, Austria, Cyprus, Malta, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, and St. Lucia are the only countries that offer what are called citizenship-by-investment programs. The costs of these passports are astronomical, precluding the average person from purchasing one.

In 2012, the government of Cyprus sold citizenship for €10 million. The price has since fallen to €2 million, but it highlights an interesting trend among countries. Some nations, such as Malta, sell citizenship to raise money for their governments or to stimulate the economy, adding yet another sociopolitical dimension to a complex phenomenon.


All this considered, one could say that there’s a hierarchy of passports operating in the world today. The Independent, a British newspaper, reported that the top 10 passports in the world are all European, with Sweden in first place. The firm Nomad Capitalist awarded the rankings based on the amount of visa-free travel guaranteed by the passport and the overseas citizen taxation policies of the issuing country, among other considerations. 

European pre-eminence in this field is possibly because all the countries listed are wealthy and stable, which reduces the possibility of illegal immigration or legal mass immigration for them. It is also no coincidence that most of these countries were colonial powers that had the opportunity to build their wealth over a lengthy period of time. Surprisingly, the United States does not appear on the list.

The least desirable passports come from countries that are witnessing drawn-out conflict. A South Sudanese passport is the best of the worst, followed by Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Iraq, with Afghanistan at the bottom of the list. Such a reality supports the argument that wealthy people from these countries are most likely to passport shop for better alternatives. But where does that leave the relatively poorer section of migrants?


Unfortunately, it leaves them in a particularly unenviable position. With borders closing in, the global swing to the political right have witnessed the dominance of restrictive immigration policies, the most controversial of which is US President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban on nationals from certain Muslim-majority countries.

Austria recently enacted legislation that allowed its government to declare a state of emergency if it believed the country could no longer host refugees. The new law allows the Austrian government to refuse migrants at the border if they deem the country from which they are directly entering is safe.

This suggests that immigration for those facing dire circumstances is becoming increasingly difficult and highlights the fine balance between national security and human rights, something that most countries in the world today struggle to manage. There is, however, a case to be made for countries seeking to protect their borders.

“Genuine national security concerns may warrant a higher scrutiny of individual mobility. In the past, governments have foiled terrorist plots partly through stricter controls on individual mobility,” said Valentin Pereda Aguado, a PhD student at U of T’s Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies who researches organized crime.

“Unfortunately, narrow political interests that harness xenophobic rhetoric to advance private agendas often shape the regulation of global individual mobility. The efforts of President Donald Trump to ban refugees and immigrants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen illustrate how politicians misuse national security concerns for reasons that are unrelated to national security,” he concluded.

“Some people may be directly affected by new restrictive immigration policies,” said Professor Matthew Light, whose research at U of T’s criminology centre focuses on migration, corruption, policing, and criminal justice. He added that it is very difficult for individuals from ‘developing’ countries to visit ‘developed’ ones, particularly those in the west, a reality few people in developed countries understand.

Global mobility has always had a political dimension, and in cases where there is international conflict, individuals themselves may choose not to visit a certain country. Light cites the examples of Israelis being banned from visiting the Arab states and Indians refraining from visiting Pakistan because of the historical international conflict in the regions.

As borders constrict, we are likely to see immigration become increasingly difficult for many people. This is strangely ironic given the free flow of information that we now have access to because of the internet and communications technologies.

It is also evident that the world’s super wealthy have the power to access increasingly rare and expensive opportunities regarding citizenship. Meanwhile, the ethics of cash-for-citizenship remain ambiguous, as there are benefits and drawbacks for both private individuals and the states making the offer. The balance between national security and free mobility is more precarious than ever.