Who Loses When a Country Puts Citizenship Up for Sale?
Comoro Islands is a tiny East African country with stunning white beaches, a large active volcano and a population just shy of 800,000. Some 150,000 Comorans live in metropolitan France, which governed the Comoros until 1975. In the United Arab Emirates, an estimated 40,000 people carry Comoran passports, too.
The Comorans in the Emirates, however, do not speak their country’s language. They do not resemble the islanders physically or culturally. They were not born there; they have never been there. In fact, until recently, these Comorans were legally stateless, or bidoon.
The bidoon — the word is Arabic for “without” — mainly come from families who lived in the region but were never counted in censuses because of their tribal affiliation, their level of literacy, their ethnic origin or their access to state officials. The Emirati government has not released census data about the number of bidoon; estimates range from 20,000 to 100,000.
The United Arab Emirates doesn’t consider the bidoon to be true Emiratis, and giving them citizenship would mean paying them the same generous social welfare benefits that Emiratis enjoy. So nine years ago, the United Arab Emirates came up with a solution: Rather than making the bidoon citizens, it began paying the Comoran government hundreds of millions of dollars to issue them passports.
I reported on the passport sales for my 2015 book, “The Cosmopolites.” Until then, the program was shrouded in secrecy. My reporting led the Comoran Parliament to investigate the scheme. The government hasn’t released its findings, but leaked documents give the most accurate sense of the “economic citizenship” program’s scale.
Despite well-documented concern about illegal passport sales, money-laundering and the siphoning of public funds by middlemen and government officials, the economic citizenship initiative has continued for close to a decade. As recently as April 25, the Comoran embassy in Abu Dhabi sent a letter to the Interior Ministry stating that 830 children under the age of 8 had been registered as citizens.
On the surface, this bizarre arrangement sounds like what management consultants would call a win-win: The stateless get passports that help them live, work and travel; Comoros, a poor country, gets money; and the Emirates can claim to be helping end statelessness, which affects 10 million people worldwide and which the United Nations Refugee Agency is campaigning to eradicate by 2024.
But there’s something more insidious going on. The passports have enabled the United Arab Emirates to airbrush its statelessness problem without signing onto the relevant international conventions, or granting its residents civil liberties or political rights. The formerly stateless, currently Comoran, lifelong residents of the Emirates end up classified as foreign nationals.
Also troubling is how little choice the stateless people have had in the matter. According to interviews with Comoran officials, immigration lawyers and activists, the United Arab Emirates not only pays for the papers but also helps Comoran officials summon and document the bidoon. Officials from the Emirates’ Interior Ministry have also been known to pressure applicants into becoming Comoran by refusing them driver’s licenses and threatening not to let their children enroll in school.
Many small countries, like Vanuatu and Malta, have recently put passports up for sale. This citizenship market paved the way for the Comoran scenario by turning passports into something that can be bought like any other commodity. But most of those countries market their citizenship to wealthy people seeking another passport to make international travel or banking easier. With Comoros, it’s the Emirati state paying a poorer country for something it chooses not to provide itself.
A Comoros passport does help stateless people travel and deal more easily with everyday bureaucracy. But it also sets a frightening precedent. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which large groups of displaced people, or minorities in a country that would sooner see them gone, are forced to take a foreign nationality under duress and are then sent away, absolving their home country of any legal responsibility.
What’s more, the size of the program is a security liability. Due diligence on passport applicants is bare-bones, and some officials have been caught selling passports on the side, with thousands of documents sold through parallel networks, according to a new analysis by members of the Comoran Parliament. Other documents show recent Comoran passport recipients aren’t just Emirati-born stateless people but also individuals born in Burma, Bangladesh, Iran and other countries, as well as a handful of Westerners. (It’s unclear whether they signed on covertly as bidoon under the Emirati program or bought new papers for themselves through middlemen.)
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More worrying still is uncertainty over whether the new Comorans even have a right to settle in “their” country, should they ever need to. When Comoran members of Parliament voted for the controversial economic citizenship law in 2008, they assumed no economic citizens would physically relocate to the islands. So far, none have. But their right of return becomes significant if or when those individuals seek refuge outside the Emirates.
In 2012, a man named Ahmed Abdelkhaleq was expelled from the United Arab Emirates for his activism defending the rights of stateless people. He held a Comoran passport but was ultimately granted asylum in Canada rather than being sent “home” to Comoros. In this isolated incident, “economic” citizenship did not stand in his way, but no jurisprudence exists to determine how Comoran “expatriates” will be treated by foreign countries and courts. Nor is there any decisive international law on the matter.
Comorans are Muslim, and many wish to visit Mecca, but permits are set aside for would-be pilgrims according to their nationality. In a letter to his colleagues, the head of the Comoros Parliament complained that “economic citizens” routinely fill this quota, leaving “real” Comoran pilgrims in a spiritual lurch. And a few years ago I asked a visiting demographer about whether he would count the Emirati Comorans in coming population surveys. He didn’t have an answer; there isn’t even language to describe that category of person.
This all points to a much deeper issue: Globalization has created situations where a person’s passport doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about who they are, where they live and what community they identify with.
Over the past few years, leaks such as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers have illustrated how wealthy people exploit cracks in the nation-state system by shopping for friendly jurisdictions that afford them (and their money) a borderless life without social or fiscal responsibility toward the places where they live. So, too, can authoritarian governments like the United Arab Emirates, which has rented the Comoros’ sovereignty to deprive disenfranchised residents of basic human rights.
This practice isn’t reserved for avaricious billionaires and Gulf monarchs, either. Australia’s practice of offshoring refugees to Nauru and Manus uses a similar logic by shirking responsibility for unwanted migrants. There’s no evidence to suggest that the Australian government was following the United Arab Emirates’ lead, but a subsequent arrangement to pay Cambodia to resettle its refugees shows that such practices are becoming more mainstream.
As a native ethnic minority whom the government considers illegal, the Rohingya of Myanmar — who now make up one-tenth of the world’s stateless people — are particularly vulnerable to population swaps. Following attacks by Myanmar’s military, 650,000 Rohingya have fled to makeshift camps in Bangladesh since August. Bangladesh’s government has little interest in keeping them long term; the Myanmar government says it will take some of them back, but there’s no political will to grant them full citizenship rights anywhere. It’s not hard to imagine the Rohingya being coerced into taking foreign passports.
Until now, world leaders and even the United Nations have remained silent on whether they recognize the legitimacy of Comoran economic citizenship. Now that the existence and scope of the scheme is undeniable, the international community needs to acknowledge what’s happening and consider the precedent this twisted scheme can set for future generations of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons.