How states sell civil rights

‘The super-rich choose their own place in the world — and pay for it’

© Reuters / Denis Balibouse


Who among us can truly become a global citizen? Journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, herself the holder of three nationalities from three different continents, takes a unique look at what citizenship means in the 21st century. She makes painfully concrete how identity papers — and whether or not a nationality is granted — increase existing inequalities.

This article was translated by Kompreno, with support from DeepL. The original article was published in Dutch in the 2022 winter issue of our quarterly magazine. We accept donations from readers to support our unique nonprofit media project.

Not everyone gets the same papers and accompanying rights just like that, and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s book The Cosmopolites (2015) makes it painfully clear. In it, for instance, she talks about trade fairs promoting so-called citizenship for investment programmes: a way for the super-rich to buy another nationality. While others dangle at the bottom of the paperwork ladder, such as the stateless Bidoon in the United Arab Emirates: nomadic residents of that country, who do not get the citizenship rights they have deserved for decades.


© Jarrad Henderson


Atossa Abrahamian

  • °1986
  • Author and journalist
  • Her work has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, the London Review of Books, Reuters and Al Jazeera America
  • Has Swiss, Canadian and Iranian citizenship and has lived in the U.S. (New York) for many years
  • Grew up in Geneva, Switzerland as the daughter of two Iranian UN staffers
  • Studied Philosophy and completed a master’s degree in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University

In contrast, the Bidoon do get identity papers from — unbelievable but true — the Comoros, an island four thousand kilometres away between the African continent and Madagascar, which these people do not even know. It aptly illustrates how the trade in papers is increasingly becoming a veritable horse-trade.

Three days in Canada

From a young age, Abrahamian looked at the idea of nationality with wide eyes. Abrahamian has Iranian roots, was born in Canada and grew up in Geneva. Today, she lives in New York. ‘Having your identity defined by where you happen to be born always struck me as strange. For most people, their country of birth is also their country of nationality. Where you were born largely determines how rich you will or can be, how much education you can count on, how long you will live… It is a very defining factor in one’s life, and yet can also feel so arbitrary.’

When she tried to move to the United States a good decade ago, she did not succeed at first. ‘I had mentioned that I was from Switzerland. But because I spent the first three days of my life in Canada, this turned out to be incorrect and my application for a green card (residency in the US, ed.) was rejected.’

The Uruguayan president’s head of security, for instance, is alleged to have helped hundreds of Russian nationals illegally obtain Uruguayan passports.

Just then, she was invited to the Global Citizenship and Residence Conference, the annual high mass for people and countries who sell passports, as well as the super-rich who want to buy them. The idea for her book was born.

All these years later, on 16 November 2022, the now 16th edition of that infamous passport conference took place. ‘Since the book was published, these programmes have not lost success. They keep popping up; there is simply a lot of demand for them now.’

The company behind the conference, Henley & Partners, reports a 337 per cent (!) increase in passport sales to US residents. Fearing the political and social climate in the US and/or the climate crisis, clients are buying citizenship from New Zealand, Portugal, or other countries.

And then, of course, there are the super-rich Russians who have seen more and more loopholes to leave the country closed since the invasion of Ukraine. Among them, citizenship of Caribbean Grenada, the world’s tenth smallest country, is in demand. For a minimum investment of $150,000, your new Grenadian passport allows you to travel on without a visa to destinations such as China, the UK and the European Schengen zone. Other Caribbean countries such as Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda maintain a ban on applications from Russia, but Grenada already abandoned that a few months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A whole slew of countries worldwide are setting up such programmes, from Egypt to Turkey and Austria to Saint Lucia. More often than not, these programmes are also the subject of political wrangling. Just in recent months, such programmes from Malta, Vanuatu, Cyprus and Bulgaria have come under fire.

Occasional corruption is also involved in the horse-trading of identity papers for the rich. The Uruguayan president’s head of security, for instance, is alleged to have helped hundreds of Russian nationals illegally obtain Uruguayan passports. The man was arrested for this in late September and a police investigation was opened.

Height of neoliberalism

‘There are many people who buy passports to travel, others buy them to hide money or themselves,’ Abrahamian observes. ‘Or to have a second identity under which they can bank.’

It is crystal clear that rich people who want an extra passport for a fee get preferential treatment. But others are stateless on paper; they do not have a nationality. Do politicians also have a reason to get those people out of their predicament?

Abrahamian: No, because that would mean there would be more citizens to keep happy and let them enjoy the benefits of citizenship. If it were up to me, I would prefer to see people vote based on where they live rather than nationality. I think this would create a more democratic society.

‘In the competitive capitalist world, it makes sense for them to enter the market and commercialise their sovereignty.’

Can we speak of a commodification of citizenship rights, in line with neoliberalist free-market thinking?

Abrahamian: Definitely. You can see it as the kind of culmination of neoliberalism. Or you can see it as an old fact brought to the market: there have always been poor people in societies. But perhaps we are moving towards a world where the poor are not only poor, but can no longer count on their civil or political rights. For hundreds of years, we had no passports and no borders. Those things simply did not exist. So today, as they are institutionalised and become an important part of our lives, it makes sense that they should also come into the market.

Which countries are counting on the citizenship-for-investment programmes you wrote about?

Abrahamian: There are two types of countries. On the one hand, corrupt and non-transparent countries where the money (paid for a passport, ed.) ends up in someone’s pocket. And on the other hand, you have countries that count on revenue from such programmes. Saint Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Comoros… These are small countries, and their greatest asset is not their idyllic beaches but the fact that they are sovereign states at all. In the competitive capitalist world, it makes sense for them to enter the market and commercialise their sovereignty.

It is fascinating to think what will happen when the climate crisis submerges these places. To be recognised as a country, there is no minimum requirement in terms of land area. So, despite all the apocalyptic reporting, I believe these states will continue to exist. They just won’t be habitable anymore. But they can keep their seat in the United Nations for a long time to come and continue this strategy. It raises fascinating questions about what it means to be a state.

Sanctuaries for people with money

European countries have closed their doors to Russians fleeing their countries. But those rich enough will find plenty of loopholes. Do European politicians really believe that Russians are better off staying at home to oppose Putin and his ilk? They conveniently ignore that this is impossible in such an undemocratic country.

Abrahamian: That European attitude is nonsense. I don’t think anyone really thinks Putin will be deposed thanks to a popular uprising. As if he would care. He’s fine with killing a lot of people. Right? The European Union just doesn’t want to let more people in. On the streets of Geneva, luxury cars with Russian number plates stand next to those with Ukrainian number plates. The super-rich find their place in the world and move there with no problem.

The book I am currently working on is about capital flows. It is a book about places in the world where the rules are different from the rest of the nation. I am trying to make the point that the dichotomy between nationalism and globalism is not an accurate representation of the way the world works.

Take Switzerland, where I grew up. It seems like an old, conservative country with strict regulations. But you have all sorts of places in Switzerland where the rules have been suspended or changed. These are free ports, so-called ‘special economic zones.’

For a long time, even Swiss banks were places to which the state did not necessarily have access. People with power can have their cake and eat it, too. These places allow them to benefit from being based in a rule of law with good public services, but do not have to pay taxes or compensate workers according to legal obligations.

Are these the places where organised crime and the mainstream economy meet?

Abrahamian: Absolutely. Look at Freeport Geneva (a notorious private storage complex, ed.), where people stock all the things they can’t move to the Cayman Islands. Expensive art, wine, cars… We know that organised crime also operates there.

‘Many politicians invoke an imaginary past of closed borders and a mythical united nation-state that never existed.’

You pointed out the false dichotomy between nationalism and globalisation. But it is not evident in the rhetoric of politicians, is it?

Abrahamian: I would go so far as to say that the really vociferous nationalists are the ones who have the greatest interest in places like this. Freeports, according to the Brexit campaigns, were one of the ways the UK could make up for the loss of trade with the European Union after the Brexit. ‘Freeport’ means different things in different places, and in the UK it is a customs-free special economic zone. People like Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (current UK prime minister, ed.) are beating the nationalist drum, yet cutting off parts of the country in the service of foreign investors and industry. To me, this is a perfect example of how there are spaces where nationalist as well as globalist ideologies come together. And that is not a good mixture.

The myth of the united nation-state

How do we protect the benefits of globalisation?

Abrahamian: One important step is to make it easier for poor people to move to another country. But the architecture for this is lacking, and I can’t imagine it could be set up today. Many politicians invoke an imaginary past of closed borders and a mythical united nation-state that never existed.

It is the myth of the Westphalian Order: a 19th-century, incorrect reading of the Peace of Westphalia (which ended several wars in Western Europe in 1648, ed.) that was supposed to legitimise the then emerging nation-states. As if 1648 heralded a period of peaceful sovereign states, religious freedom and territorial integrity… In reality, the Peace of Westphalia contained none of these components. The world was a lot more complicated then, as it is now.

The haggling with identity papers and the inequality that goes with it are not an urgent problem for politicians, but the inequality is growing. How serious is this situation? Will civil rights, including the ability to travel, become a luxury good in the future?

Abrahamian: They already are today. You need money to get on a plane or get a visa. I think it will be difficult to take away the middle class’s last-minute holidays, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. You can imagine ghettos inhabited only by rich people, a kind of pervasive segregation based on capital. But that’s not how societies work.

Here in the United States, we saw a labour shortage develop because at a certain point, people were no longer going to work for wages they couldn’t possibly live on in that place. There were not enough people to take the low-paying jobs. But everyone depends on these people every day, from bus drivers to teachers to nurses. I think some of the super rich have realised by now that you need these people. Ultimately, you have to make sure that people can at least pay their rent and buy food, because otherwise they can’t work for you.

Can you imagine the end of citizenship and nation states?

Abrahamian: That question reminds me of a quote by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’

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