Minister’s discretionary powers questioned over naturalisation requirements

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

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, according to a report issued by the European Union Democracy Observatory (EUDO) citizenship observatory.

The discretionary powers of the Minister are described as "avenues of potential abuse and conflicts of interest".

Naturalisation is the process through which a foreign immigrant can become a citizen of Malta.

The EUDO study on naturalisation procedures for foreign-born, non-Maltese immigrants in Malta was written by Daniela De Bono, a senior lecturer in International Migration and Ethnic Relations (IMER) at the Department of Global Political Studies at Malmo University.

De Bono concludes that ultimately it is in the government's interest to ensure a fair and transparent system to dispel the possibility of allegations of abuse.

The Maltese Citizenship Act lays out general requirements that applicants need to meet to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation.

Being of "good character" and being deemed by the Minister as "a suitable citizen" are among the requirements.

One must have also resided in Malta for the 12 months immediately before submitting the application for citizenship and have previously resided in Malta for periods amounting to four years in the previous six years.

In certain "special circumstances" the Minister may allow periods of residence earlier than seven years before the date of application.

Persons applying for naturalisation also need two sponsors, one of whom must be an MP, a judge, a magistrate, a parish priest, a doctor, a lawyer, a notary public or an officer in the army, civil service or police.

These requirements are described as "broad and vague," and each case is handled on its own merits without any standardised system, like language tests.

The study shows that between 1991 and 2008, only 23% of individuals who acquired citizenship in Malta did so through naturalisation. The rest were mostly Maltese migrants or their descendents living in countries like Australia, who applied for dual citizenship.

A reply to a parliamentary question reveals that only 107 of the 1,143 persons acquiring citizenship in 2011 were naturalised, foreign-born residents of Malta.

The Director of the Department of Citizenship and Expatriate Affairs, Joe Mizzi, is quoted as saying that citizenship by naturalisation is only granted "for exceptional, humanitarian purposes," like having formed a family and having children in Malta.

But statistics and information on the main reasons behind granting or turning down requests for citizenship are not publicly available. Neither is a profile of unsuccessful applicants. This makes it difficult to confirm how many were actually granted citizenship on humanitarian grounds.

The study notes the absence of any promotional material encouraging individuals to apply for citizenship through naturalisation. Neither have there ever been any citizenship ceremonies celebrating the acquisition of citizenship.

Moreover although the Maltese Citizenship Act states that an adequate knowledge of Maltese or English is a criterion for naturalisation, language proficiency is not assessed. The study also laments the absence of publicly run or subsidised integration courses or tests.

The restriction of citizenship by naturalisation contrasts with the sharp increase in the number of people conferred Maltese citizenship since 2000, mainly due to reforms in the citizenship regime, which made citizenship for spouses and children of people of Maltese descent easier.

In 2007 dual citizenship was extended to first, second and subsequent generations of Maltese born outside Malta and living abroad whose Maltese citizenship derived from descent rather than birth in Malta.

As a result the number of new citizens shot up from 246 in 1991 to 644 in 2008. But only 50 of the new citizens in 2008 were naturalised.

So what difference would a few more naturalised citizens have made, when citizenship by descent accounted for such a sharp increase in numbers?

De Bono gives two reasons for this apparent contradiction, namely that the Maltese do not find immigration desirable and that they are not keen to give voting rights to migrants.

While naturalised citizens have an automatic right to vote, the descendents of Maltese emigrants to distant countries like Australia and Canada can become citizens but cannot vote immediately because they are not residents.