Citizenship for Sale: Disjointed Identities as Mena Residents Seek Safe Harbors

Rym Tina Ghazal

Three families, one common story: They all bought a better future. One family is from Gaza, but now carry Saint Kitts and Nevis passports, while admitting they have no idea where the Caribbean nation is located on a map. Another family from Aleppo travel with Hungarian passports, yet haven’t learned a single word of the language. A third from Baghdad got Canadian citizenship, but know little about the history of their adopted nation and have yet to pay taxes.

All three families say their lives have changed for the better since they acquired alternative citizenships. They can travel, buy property, receive healthcare and seek out better job opportunities and schooling. “We are no longer discriminated against or humiliated,” said a member of the Palestinian/Caribbean family. “We were just refugees before, and no one likes refugees.”

The three families also share another commonality: All three originate from areas affected by the chronic conflicts affecting the region. In that context, the phenomenon of purchasing citizenship raises important questions not just for the individuals but also for the Mena region they leave behind. As the relatively affluent are able to buy an exit ticket, does that sever their ties to their countries of origin? What are the implications for a country and people abandoned when those who can afford to, decide to flee?

Of course, particularly in the case of the Syrian crisis, the exodus of refugees includes far more than the relatively lucky few who can purchase new documents, many of whom are subjected to often-dangerous journeys across borders to uncertain futures abroad. Over the past few years, more and more nationals from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and Pakistan have looked West, with those with the resources buying passports in the hopes of changing their lives. Of course, it is not only citizens of the Arab states that are seeking second passports, with large numbers of Russians, Iranians, Indians and Chinese also moving abroad for reasons ranging from education and investment opportunities to very real pleas for asylum.

While there are many possible motives behind such a move, there is an obvious unifying factor. Almost everyone in the modern age lives and dies with some form of identification number, but not all IDs are created equal. For the three families in question, The Passport Index’s ranking based on visa-free scores shows some obvious advantages: the Palestinian Territories ranks 90th, compared to 30th for St Kitts and Nevis; Hungary is 10th compared to Syria’s 95th; and Canada’s sixth position shines besides Iraq’s 97th. The numbers speak for themselves.

So does cold, hard currency. We often see advertisements for Canadian, Australian and Caribbean passports, where investments – ranging upwards from hundreds of thousands of dollars – can help to pave the way to eventual citizenship. Many of these transactions are completely aboveboard and based on the labor, economic and humanitarian policies of destination countries, but of course in cases involving desperate people, the chances of exploitation and backhanded deals multiply.

While we have seen a backlash in Europe in recent years over the massive influx of sometimes undocumented refugees, raising questions about the purported loss of European identity, the dual-passport holders face a comparably easy process finding a safe haven. Yet there are still fundamental quandaries about identity and allegiance. Over the years, I have done many stories on identity and citizenship in which questions of patriotism and loyalty were frequently raised. Often when someone has simply bought a passport – and not always through proper channels – they don’t attach much sentimental value to it or feel any patriotic loyalty to their new homeland, unlike those immigrants who have gone through the often-rigorous normal channels of the naturalization process.

During the course of my reporting, I once asked a group of young Arab-Canadians and Americans who among them would be prepared to fight for their new countries in case of a war. With the exception of one Canadian, not a single person said he would take up arms in national defense, with some saying that they would simply pull up their newly grown roots and move somewhere safer. After all, for many, that’s why they were there in the first place. None of them had grown up in their new countries, so why would they fight? That sentiment is only aggravated when citizenship becomes a clear-cut transactional exchange.

As complicated as the situation is in destination countries, the stories of departure and what is left behind is equally fraught with complexity. Those families that can afford to purchase a new nationality, or even those most likely to prevail in seeking asylum or naturalization, disproportionately come from the better educated, more affluent and more cosmopolitan demographics. For strife-torn countries such as Syria, or fearfully repressed peoples such as the Palestinians, the loss of such citizens is yet another blow destabilizing communities.

But it would be a mistake to discount such families’ decisions as disloyal or simply self-interested. Certainly, a relative few emigrants want a mansion in London or a townhouse in Sydney, but far more, like that Palestinian family, are escaping dire circumstances that are not of their own making. And regardless of citizenship status, anyone familiar with the Arab diaspora knows that the most common sentiment is an aching longing for home.

Rym Tina Ghazal is a peace ambassador, thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer and author. In addition, she is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years of experience. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.

Louai Beshara / AFP