Time to review citizenship laws

Malta’s controversial IIP scheme is nothing less than obscene at a time when millions of people are trying to pour into Europe from under-developed or war-torn countries only to be denied entry

6 December 2016, 7:49am
Cartoon: Mikiel Galea
Cartoon: Mikiel Galea
The question of how a person acquires citizenship of the Republic of Malta has never been more relevant than today.

Through a policy introduced by the Muscat administration, wealthy foreigners who have no connection to the country at all are invited to simply buy Maltese nationality through the controversial IIP scheme.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat seemed perplexed when this initiative came in for heavy criticism, both locally and abroad. Yet it is hardly surprising. At a time when millions of people are trying to pour into Europe from under-developed or war-torn countries in Asia and Africa, only to be denied entry and being often detained or deported… it is nothing less than obscene to sell the same commodity for national profit.

It is against this backdrop that we must judge the naturalisation procedures available to less economically fortunate candidates. There are numerous circumstances whereby non-European citizens may become eligible to apply for citizenship of an EU member state, even if they do not have a million euros to spend. Examples include foreigners who marry citizens; in Malta there is a mandatory five-year wait in such cases, but the door to Maltese citizenship is nonetheless open to this category.

For other categories, the road is considerably longer and less clear-cut. Malta employs a ‘jus sanguinis’ approach to the issue of nationality: meaning that at least one parent has to be a Maltese citizen for their children to qualify. This may have made sense in decades gone by, where foreign residents were generally a rarity. But in a context where Malta’s population is expanding through legal (and encouraged) migration, it is giving rise to clear cases of social injustice.

Children born in Malta to foreign parents are not automatically given the possibility to apply for Maltese citizenship, as is the case in several other EU countries. Even children of asylum seekers enjoying temporary protection, as well as legal residency and work permits, may find themselves deported as illegal aliens. According to the Home Affairs Minister there is no policy which protects such children from being deported, no matter how long they or their parents have been living in the country; or how much they would have contributed in taxes.

This is clearly an injustice. By permitting such people to remain here legally, and to contribute to the social welfare system, the State is entering into a debt of responsibility. At the very minimum there should be a procedure for children born to parents who are long-term residents, and who are already ingrained in the education system, to eventually become Maltese citizens. This should really be a mere courtesy on the part of the Maltese State, in recognition of these people’s contributions.

Even without that consideration, it is inhumane to uproot established families, and disrupt a child’s education, because of an illegality in which that child has no blame.

On a separate note, Malta’s citizenship laws have also been criticised for apportioning too much discretion to the Home Affairs Minister. The acquisition of citizenship by naturalisation in Malta is overshadowed by the “singular non-reviewable discretion” which the Minister for Home Affairs enjoys in decisions on each case. A report issued by the European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO) described these discretionary powers as “avenues of potential abuse and conflicts of interest”. This is especially damning, because information on the main reasons behind granting or turning down requests for citizenship is not publicly available. Neither is a profile of unsuccessful applicants. This makes it difficult to assess whether citizenship is conferred in good faith. Given that Maltese citizenship has now been given a monetary value, one cannot exclude the possibility that the Minister’s ‘discretion’ may save a possible applicant the €1 million he or she would otherwise pay through the IIP scheme.

As with children born here, there should be a clear, transparent procedure to apply for citizenship through naturalisation. In most EU countries, people are given citizenship after five or six years of residence. In Malta, people have been known to live and work for up to 20 years before being granted citizenship: despite having learnt the language, integrated, worked legally, paid taxes, given immense cultural contributions to the country.

None of this is down to clearly established rules of engagement. Even the unwritten rule that it takes some 20 years to acquire Maltese citizenship is completely at the discretion of the minister. This is unacceptable and unjustifiable, as it automatically creates a two-tier system. One (IIP) for the rich; and another for the non-rich who have to live in uncertainty, sometimes leading invisible lives, while their fate is decided entirely on the whims of a minister.

The argument that ‘we have no space’, and that we should not encourage economic migrants to come to Malta, automatically falls flat on its face, when the Maltese government is actively seeking to attract high-net worth individuals who are foreign to live and work in the towers which will be built for their convenience in Paceville.

If we have enough land to sacrifice great portions of it for the benefit of the wealthy, we should surely have a little room left over for ordinary human decency.