Restrict citizenship in Southern Europe to fight irregular migration? More rhetoric than reality

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

The new Greek government wants to undermine its landmark 2010 Nationality Reform by aligning the law with other southern European countries facing irregular migration. However, Greece’s current naturalisation and birthright citizenship policies already reflect the average practice in most Western countries of immigration and the reform trends in Southern Europe. Moreover, Europe’s nationality laws are not major pull factors for irregular migration. Citizenship restrictions ‘in the name of irregular migration’ are often based on ancedotes about ‘birth tourism’ and rhetoric from the far-right.

Greece may undermine recent progress on integration

While the new Greek government wants to focus on the economic crisis and EU bailout, parties within the coalition are also planning to reform its 2010 Citizenship Law, one of the greatest recent achievements on integration in Greeceindeed, even in the entire EU. Sworn in on 21 June, the new Interior Minister Euripides Stylianidis from the winning centre-right “New Democracy” announced on 11 July that citizenship restrictions were part of the coalition agreements and one of his top priorities. These restrictions include:

  • Immigrants who want to naturalise would need 10 years of legal residence (as before the 2010 reform), not just 7 years (currently);
  • Children of immigrants would only become Greek automatically if they go to university in Greece;
  • Fewer Greek-born children would be entitled to birthright citizenship (their parents must have resided for 8 years and not 5);
  • These Greek-born children would no longer be Greek at birth, but only as an option at the age of 18.

The 2010 Citizenship Reform (Law 3838/2010) transformed Greek citizenship from the 3rd most exclusionary of all European countries to become average in Europe.

Under today’s proposals, their eligibility for Greek citizenship would create much less favourable opportunities for societal integration, according to the MIPEX database. A residence requirement of 10 years is becoming more and more rare across Europe (e.g. Austria, Italy, Spain) and also the maximum allowed under the relevant Council of Europe Convention. The average residence requirement is 5-7 years, which was the basis for the 2010 Reform.

The children of immigrants would have to wait until adulthood or university to prove their Greekness. In contrast,  the 2010 reform considered that citizenship at birth would help all Greek-born children with their education, socialisation, and self-identification by removing many administrative and personal obstacles.

As a new country of immigration, Greece still has a small population of people born there to a foreign-born parent (estimated at around 1 percent according to Eurostat survey data). This data suggests that on average the position of these young people in the education system and labour market is better than the first generation in Greece and closer to their peers with Greek parents, just like other members of the second-generation across Europe.

The objective: Align law to other Southern European countries facing irregular migration

What are the objectives behind the proposal? To align the nationality law in Greece with other southern European countries facing similar problems of irregular migration. The proposal presumes that naturalisation and birthright citizenship laws are, firstly, more restrictive in Southern Europe’s other countries of immigration and, secondly, linked to irregular migration flows.

The proposal presents Greek citizenship as a pull factor for Greece’s large irregular migrant population. Such arguments abound in current Greek political debates. The far-right parties Golden Dawn and Independent Greeks believe that many irregular migrants are regularised and eventually they — or their Greek-born children — become Greek. More irregular migrants then choose to move to Greece or remain there in hope of Greek citizenship, so the argument goes.

Citizenship in Southern Europe: the 2010 law goes with — not against — the trend

The government proposed to model the law in Greece on other southern Europeans, but what countries are they talking about? Here are the key facts about citizenship laws in the region, from MIPEX and EUDO-Citizenship:

  • Cyprus: 7 years’ residence and similar naturalisation requirements as Greece. No birthright citizenship exists because citizenship law is not defined by recent temporary immigration, but instead by the conflict with Turkey over Northern Cyprus.
  • Malta: 5 years’ residence and similar requirements as Greece. Recent immigration has had little effect on citizenship law.
  • France: 5 years’ residence and similar requirements as Greece. Birthright citizenship exists at birth for third generation and after birth for second generation with 5 years either since age 11 (declaration by child) or since age 8 (declaration by parent).
  • Spain: 2 years’ residence for most first-generation immigrants (largely from Latin America), 10 years’ for the rest, and 1 year of the second generation. Similar requirements as Greece, with the exception of dual nationality. Birthright citizenship at birth exists for third generation. Several reforms have been introduced for facilitated naturalisation for the first generation and ius soli for the second.
  • Portugal: 6 years’ residence and fewer requirements than Greece. Birthright citizenship at birth for second-generation with parents legally residing for at least five years as well as for third-generation. Its 2006 Nationality Reform sets the most favourable conditions for immigrants’ access to nationality in the EU.
  • Italy: 10 years’ residence but fewer requirements than Greece. For the half-a-million children born to foreign parents, birthright citizenship only exists after birth as an option only during the 18th-year. A wide range of policymakers admit that the current system does not work. The residence period for naturalisation and birthright citizenship is long and must be legal and uninterrupted. Children born and raised in Italy are kept in a precarious legal status dependent on their parents. This legal status creates problems with the administration, at school, on school trips, and accessing universities or competitive sports. A Greek or Portuguese-like reform is backed by the Italian President, Integration Minister, left and right parties, an NGO movement, and the majority of the public.

In comparison, Greece’s 2010 law is going with–not against–the trend. Looking across the world from 1948 to 2001, Bertocchi and Strozzi (2006) found that when ius sanguinis countries become major destinations for immigration, they tended to adopt ius soli policies–the trend towards ius soli was strongest in Southern Europe. MIPEX III observed that Greece’s citizenship policies are average in Europe (ranking 13th)–right in the middle of the Southern Europe’s new countries of immigration. Greece and Portugal have already followed the reform trends set in established and reforming countries: a short residence requirement, birthright citizenship, and dual nationality. Italy is not far behind. 

As noted by EUDO-Citizenship expert Dimitris Christopoulos, the 2010 law does not need to change because Greece has already aligned its laws to other Southern European countries.

Restricting citizenship does not fight irregular migration

Access to citizenship is not a major factor for irregular migration. Universal birthright citizenship is the norm in most South and North American countries, including Canada and the United States. So-called ‘birth tourism’ is extremely rare even in these countries, let alone Europe (see debates in Canada and the United States, also the data collected by the US MIPEX partner, Immigration Policy Center). 

No European country, including Greece, grants naturalisation to irregular migrants or automatic birthright citizenship to the second generation. For example, the Portuguese Prime Minister kept universal birthright citizenship out of the 2006 reform, so that citizenship would not be a pull factor for irregular migration. Very few naturalisation channels exist for irregular migrants’ children or grandchildren–discretionarily for their children in Portugal and automatically for their grandchildren in Portugal and a few other countries. No evidence exists that these restricted channels have attracted greater irregular migration.

On the contrary, access to citizenship can actually reduce the number of irregular migrants. Several European countries grant universal birthright citizenship to the third-generation, so that the state does not create new irregular residents over generations. In the United States, a repeal of the birthright constitutional amendment could increase the irregular population by at least 5 million people by 2050, according to US think-tank Migration Policy Institute.

Another often-ignored cause of irregularity is the withdrawal and loss of legal status. Mistakes and delays in administrative procedures across Europe can cause legal immigrants to lose their legal status. Legal workers in countries like Greece can lose their status because they lost their job during the economic crisis. Even long-term residents can lose their status on many grounds, even after years in the country. For these reasons, Portugal liberalised and simplified its procedure, so that excessive bureaucracy would not become “a friend of clandestine immigration.” 

In many cases, citizenship restrictions are not motivated by the fight against irregular migration. Over the past 30 years, several countries restricted birthright citizenship for diverse reasons. Malta (1989), a Commonwealth country, replaced its UK-style birthright citizenship policy with an ancestry-based policy focused on emigrants abroad. France (1993) simply formalised an existing legal restriction. Belgium (2006) addressed possible fraud in cases of statelessness.

Citizenship restrictions ‘in the name of irregular migration’ are often based on ancedotes and not hard evidence. The UK (1983), Australia (1986), Ireland (2004), and New Zealand (2006) ended universal birthright citizienship because of rumours of ‘birth tourists.’ These ancedotes turned out to be exceptional cases and not trends. The New Zealand government estimated that this phenomenon concerned only 100-600 newborns per year. Similar statistics in Ireland convinced many integration actors against the need for reform, but not the government, which continued ahead with its citizenship referendum. Interestingly, these reforms were not targeted at irregular migrants as such. For instance, Australia still grants automatic citizenship to irregular migrants’ Australian-born children who reside in the country for 10 years.

The impact of the far-right

Far-right rhetoric regularly hides behind citizenship restrictions, according to several international studies. Once people start voting for far-right parties out of fear of the increasing immigrant population, mainstream politicians often respond with citizenship restrictions. The influence of right-wing parties may be the most important factor that slows or reverses citizenship reform. For example, the previous Italian government and its supporters in the rightwing populist Lega Nord party blamed debate on citizenship reform for the 2010 riots in the mafia-dominated town of Rosarno between local youth and African farm workers. Indeed, Greek far-right parties have been the most vocal supporters of the link between irregular migration and the 2010 Citizenship Reform. Golden Dawn, the right-wing extremist party, claims that Greece rewards ‘uncontrolled’ illegal immigration with regularisation and easy access to citizenship.

Conclusion: Citizenship is more linked to legal than irregular migration 

Debates on citizenship in Europe should not confuse irregular migration with the integration of legal residents. Facilitating naturalisation and birthright citizenship is part of an orderly immigration system. Countries that become major destinations for legal immigrants tend to adopt birthright citizenship and facilitate naturalisation, as long as politicans do not given into pressure from the far-right. These countries may  facilitate not only access to citizenship, but also often work migration and family reunion. Access to citizenship may itself produce new forms of legal immigration (e.g. easier family reunion) and mobility (within the EU and between countries of origin).

Regularisation, another part of an orderly immigration system, happens all the time across Europe. Whether as visible one-off campaigns in the South or discrete ongoing mechanisms in the North, regularisations have involved an estimated 5-6 million foreigners in the EU27 between 1996-2007, according to the REGINE project. Poland recently finished a campaign, which it had launched without much fuss during its Presidency of the EU Council. A new campaign will soon begin in Italy. With the exception of Cyprus, all countries with large irregular migrant populations have held regularisations since 1996. All across Europe, these newly legal immigrants are often put on the path to permanent residence and citizenship. Their children, born in the country after regularisation, put down roots there from the day of their birth. Birthright citizenship recognises them and their full potential as members of society.