Guest post by Sahng-Ah Yoo, MSc candidate in Criminology and Criminal Justice at University of Oxford. Her work explores the various avenues institutional power and authority manifest into discrimination, oppression, and human rights violations.

Review of The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept edited by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman and Margaret Walton-Roberts (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015)

Our right to citizenship, protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is perhaps our most fundamental (and precious) right. Legally, it is only by marking ourselves as citizens of a certain state that we can claim other essential rights provided by it, like the right to education, the right to protection from exploitation, and the right to equality. It is, in a way, a gateway right that plants us firmly in the protection and service of the state. That’s why we are assured by international treaties and laws to be a citizen of one state or another from the day we are born to the day we die.

Yet, about 12 million people are stateless in our world today, their legal identities either forcibly removed or nonexistent to start off with. Moreover, with the globalization of goods and markets, the increasing number of migrants passing through state borders has threatened to overwhelm an outdated system that links political rights to social identity, pushing states to reconsider if and how they should classify their residents.

The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept concerns itself with this bewildering situation, where our most fundamental right to citizenship isn’t always a promise delivered in full by our legal and political institutions. By bringing a human rights focus to the jargon and technicalities behind our legal identities, this book introduces the notion of a ‘slippery’ right, where citizenship is not ‘a simple binary entity that one either possesses or does not’ (p. 2) but rather is something that can be denied, lost, partially fulfilled, or even forced upon people who don’t want it. On a spectrum of those who enjoy the legal and social benefits of citizenship to those whose right to nationality is outright refused, people with many kinds of statuses live in various degrees of precariousness within states that cannot or will not protect them. Howard-Hassman and Walton-Roberts bring together a fantastic collection of essays to help elucidate the complex ways that citizenship is manipulated by states in pursuit of their own population management goals and what tragedies can occur as a result.

With fantastic introductory chapters written by David Weissbrodt (Chapter 1) and Kristy Belton (Chapter 2), the book first lays a foundation of relevant international treaties and laws that ensure the right to citizenship. Over the next several chapters, the book goes on to explore the legal and social implications of specific national contexts, as the contributors examine the status of labor migrants in the United States and Canada, the changing definition of citizenship in Nigeria, Germany, India, and Brazil, and the rights of ethnic groups including Palestinians, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Bangladeshi migrants to India, and Roma in Europe. With a broad geographical scope, this volume provides a wide-ranging theoretical and legal framework to understand the particular ambiguities, paradoxes, and evolutions of citizenship regimes in the twenty-first century.

The slipperiness of our right to citizenship is perhaps best illustrated in children. In some cases, with the scratch of a pen, one’s citizenship can go out the window, as in the case of Brazil. Carolina Moulin (Chapter 5) describes how a seemingly minor change to the Brazilian Constitution forced over 200,000 children born of Brazilian parents abroad to suddenly become stateless when the government began to require all Brazilian citizens to have resided within its borders and undergone a judicial process upon legal age. In other countries like the United States and Canada that abide by the principle of jus soli (i.e., the right of anyone born in the territory of a state to citizenship or nationality), it’s not that citizenship is withheld, but rather that a conflict of interest between different rights makes it difficult for citizenship to stick to the child. Nancy Hiemstra and Alison Mountz (Chapter 10) describe situations where citizen children with undocumented parents are faced with the terrible situation where they can be deported with their family back to a country they don’t recognize, or stay in their home country with a foster family. A child’s right to family and a citizen’s right to protection from deportation are suddenly at odds with one another and rights and privileges are peeled away from the various ‘tiers of access to citizenship’ developed by states (p. 162). Another example comes from India where citizen girls, particularly those from poor, low-caste backgrounds, are prevented from acquiring a competitive education due to entrenched discrimination and deep-seated cultural assumptions about appropriate gender norms and roles. So, even though their citizenship itself isn’t in question, the full extent of that right fails to extend to the right to education that their male peers can exercise. These girls, then, are left with only a partial right to all citizenship offers, even within their own country and in a community they call home.

In all of these scenarios, the child’s lack of political voice leaves them particularly vulnerable and without recourse for justice, leaving room for what Jacqueline Bhabha and Margareta Matache (Chapter 8) call a ‘slimy’ citizenship, where the appearance of uniform entitlement to state benefits is ‘belied by deeply embedded discrimination, supported by tacit acceptance or self-serving justification’ (p. 138).

But Howard-Hassman and Walton-Roberts make clear in this book that this story of vulnerability is not limited to children. Although international law prohibits collective deportations of ethnic groups, Michael Baer (Chapter 3) records the vast displacement of Palestinian people in Israel and Nasir Uddin (Chapter 4) describes Myanmar’s deportation of the Rohingya. Janet McLaughlin and Jenny Hennebry (Chapter 11) describe migrant workers in Canada as victims of a system that formally institutionalizes ‘racialized unequal power relations by which the state can benefit from cheap labor without confronting the ethical dilemmas of denying citizenship rights.’

At the crux of the book is this idea that ‘citizenship is the one human right whose meaning is bounded by territory and is thus tied invariably to claims of sovereignty’ (p. 99). There is an inherent complexity in a human right that rests factually within a context that must also respect the state’s right to grant or deny it. And this book grapples with it with outstanding grace, insight, and eloquence. Whether for the everyday reader or for the invested researcher, this book offers great reading material that will change the vocabulary you use for one of our society’s most pressing humanitarian issues today.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Yoo, S-A. (2016) Book Review: The Human Right to Citizenship: A Slippery Concept. Available at: 2016/05/book-review-human (Accessed [date]).