The International Observatory on Statelessness

Denial or Deprivation of Citizenship

The practice of denying and depriving minorities the right to citizenship has been associated with the centralisation of political authority and the creation of defined categories of belonging. The way in which states have historically been constructed also helps to explain how minorities may become locked out of the right to citizenship.  Examples of exclusionary citizenship policies can find expression in both ancient and moderns forms of governance, from Athens and Rome, to the reorganisation of states following the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. [1]


The process of exclusion begins with the formal creation of minority groups. Large communities of minorities may be established following mass migrations, for example the Estate Tamils in Sri Lanka and Turkish guest workers who have settled in Germany. In addition, forced migration may generate new minority groups. The Stalinist purges and mass deportations conducted in the 1940s created large minority populations in distant states, such as the Crimean Tartars who were re-settled in Uzbekistan and Koreans who were deported to regions as far West as Ukraine.[2]


Minorities living within a state are often defined according to a set of differentiating criteria including language, religion, race, ethnicity, caste or tribal affiliation. In Western Europe, minorities have traditionally been described in terms of their religious affiliation, and more recently linguistic origin. In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, minority status is largely defined on the basis of ethno-national origin. In Asia and Africa, religion, language, racial and ethnic origin, are commonly used to define minority groups. In all settings, minorities are subject to wider geo-political considerations and have periodically been seen as extensions of other states or powers; their loyalty has been questioned and presence been used to firm up national identities which have been shaped in opposition to other powers. 


The demarcation of groups as minorities does not necessarily lead to vulnerability, however, there is considerable evidence that differentiating criteria are frequently used to present an image of the ‘other’ by political authorities and held out as a justification for inequitable treatment, in spite of the growing normalisation of human rights.[3]  For example lower-caste Dalits in India are denied many rights including ownership of land; the Hindu population in Taliban controlled Afghanistan was intensely persecuted and saw its cultural heritage destroyed; and, Meshketian Turks in Southern Russia have been denied documents, freedom of movement and were subject to other repressive policies. 


One of the central concerns is the degree to which race and ethnicity are prioritised over civic criteria, or vice-versa, in the design of exclusive nationality and citizenship laws. Citizenship policies built on the principle of blood origin (jus sanguinis) have made the incorporation of minorities, especially relatively recent migrants and children of migrants, particularly difficult.[4]   In several parts of the world, from Cote d’Ivoire to Italy, the principle of membership on the basis of blood origin has locked many minority groups out of the right to citizenship in their habitual state. 


There are several structural explanations for the pervasiveness of discriminatory practices towards minorities, including the denial and deprivation of citizenship. One important explanation can be found in the history of inter-state and territorial conflicts and the processes of national integration and state-building that may precede or follow war. Conflict in the international system is the primary cause of refugee creation[5] and, by extension, minority creation since refugees are people resettled outside their habitual country of residence and only a percentage ever return.[6] The context for the many nationality and citizenship problems in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, is partially explained by conflict-induced displacement. 


During periods of national homogenisation, ethnic membership may be associated with loyalty and be a major factor in the denial and granting of citizenship; for example in the 1990s Croatia introduced several barriers that prevented ethnic Serbs from obtaining citizenship, even though they had resided on Croatian territory prior to Croatia’s independence. It equally granted citizenship to ethnic Croats from Bosnia who were invited to settle in parts of Croatia. For more than thirty years, the Bihari community in Bangladesh have been segregated from the major Bengali population amid accusations that the Bihari were collectively disloyal and favoured the regime based in Islamabad during Bangladesh’s break from Pakistan. Similarly, in parts of Central and East Africa, long standing minority populations have been denied citizenship because they have been identified with colonial powers or historic ‘enemy’ groups, most notably the Nubian population in Kenya.[7] 


The influence of exclusive nationalist ideologies may also lead to the withdrawal of citizenship, as was the case during and shortly after the First World War when foreign-born citizens who had been naturalised were stripped of their citizenship by several European states including, France, Belgium, Turkey and the Soviet Union.[8] Indeed, there is a long history of racism which has precipitated minority denaturalisation programmes, most famously the introduction of the Nuremburg Laws in Germany and Austria deprived Jews of their rights to citizenship. More recently, in Cote d’Ivoire, former migrants from West Africa who had settled and been naturalised as ‘Ivorian’ were later denaturalised during a programme of ethnic homogenisation and intense xenophobia.


In addition to the fact that the denial or deprivation of citizenship violates many principles of international law, the above practices also present practical, economic and political challenges that affect, states, communities, families and individuals. The principal concerns for states are largely political and economic. Citizenship binds and unites society. It acts as a gateway to justice, housing, and success in life. Therefore the refusal to grant citizenship to large numbers of minorities, who may be concentrated in particular areas, may affect balanced integration and can lead to security threats, including revolt and other types of instability. If minorities are located in border regions, and indeed if there are defined trans-national communities, then the deliberate exclusion of particular populations may have significant consequences for both internal and regional security, as evidenced by the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, tensions in Democratic Republic of Congo, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia and also by the fomentation of trans-border and inter-ethnic violence in Rwanda and Burundi and spill over from Kosovo to Macedonia and Southern Serbia. 


Under conditions of repression and in particular following programmes of denaturalisation, states risk creating situations where restrictions on educational opportunities and the closure of universities encourage brain drain and flight; for example with the expulsions of Asians from Uganda, the denial of university education to many Kosovars, or more recently the emigration of the Meshketian Turks from Southern Russia.   


The marginalisation of large groups of people may equally undermine conditions of human security which affect states, communities and individuals collectively. By disenfranchising significant populations, states sow the seeds for underdevelopment and unrest, as in Bangladesh, Palestine and Israel. Under such conditions not only do individuals lose but so do states in aggregate terms; among other things they lose in terms of lower economic output and a reduced fiscal base.


The greatest losers, however, remain the individuals who are unable to pursue their daily existence free from interference, and have difficulties actualising their rights, including the rights to work and educate their children and access heath care services; among many others.  Citizenship makes an enormous difference to individuals and families. It guarantees the right of entry and freedom from expulsion and also guarantees economic rights in some developing countries. 

Brad K. Blitz

[1] See: Satvinder Juss (2006) International Migration and Global Justice, Ashgate Press; London.

[2] Between 1943 and 1944 large numbers of Crimean and North Caucasians were deported en mass to distant parts of the Soviet Union. In addition to Crimean Tartars they included Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, Meskhetian Turks, and Crimean Bolgars, as well as Kalmyks.

[3] See Jack Donnelly (2003) Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[4] Rogers Brubaker argues that discrimination is unavoidable in cases where citizenship laws are designed on the basis of claims which privilege historical and territorial understandings of the nation over contemporary facts and thus imprint ethno-national preferences into the constitution. See Rogers Brubaker (1992) Citizenship and nationhood in France and Germany (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press).

[5] Aristide R. Zolberg(1983) 'The Formation of New States as a Refugee-generating Process', Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 467: 24-38.

[6] Russell King(2000) 'Generalizations from the History of Migration' in Ghosh, B. (ed.) Return Migration, Journey of Hope or Despair? Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

[7] See: Rose Janet Ayugi-Masinde (2005) Kenya ReportAfrica Citizenship and Discrimination Audit, Open Society Justice Initiative, July 2005.

[8] In 1915 France introduced measures to denationalise French citizens of ‘enemy origins’.   Following the end of the First World War, the new Soviet and Turkish governments promptly denationalised Russian, Armenian and Hungarian refugees who became stateless.   Several newly independent states then began introducing laws which permitted their own citizens to be denaturalized and denationalized.   However, the practice was not limited to new countries. In 1992, Belgium revoked the naturalization of citizens who had committed ‘anti-national’ acts during the war; Fascist Italy in 1926 passed a similar law concerning citizens who had shown themselves to be ‘unworthy of Italian citizenship’; Austria followed suit in 1933. In 1935 Germany introduced the Nuremberg Laws which divided German citizens into full citizens and citizens without political rights and almost overnight created millions of stateless persons.