What Makes a Citizen: reflections on identity, bureaucracy and responsibility

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I hold two passports, but I have lived for long periods in four countries.  In my first country, the country of my birth, I was young; I contributed nothing to my country.  I was, however, a citizen.  When I moved to country number two, I became a civic organiser, I founded three cultural organisations that addressed the development of skills and pride of specifically local communities – one in a rural development area, another for an urban African-Caribbean population, and yet another, for South Asian communities. I also worked for an arts council and developed arts and culture throughout a large English region.  I was not a citizen, but it’s fair to say that I contributed to my society. In country number three, my work was completely focused on the international level, and I was out of the country far more than I was in it. Due to the length of my employment and residency there, however, I was able to become a naturalised citizen.  Now, I am in country four; as a citizen not of that country but of the EU, I can vote in local elections, but my national political activism is practically non-existent – quite the opposite of my international political activism, which is if anything stronger than ever, but on the international, not the European level.  My contribution to my local community here consists of very occasionally lending a hand in local fairs.  Not much, in other words.

What makes a citizen?  What forms the border between acceptance and inclusion or rejection and exclusion from a social and political community? Who belongs? In some cases, in France (2018) and Italy (2019) citizenship has been granted to migrants for highly mediatised acts of rescuing children in danger.  In some countries, it can be obtained      by depositing, paying or investing large sums of money in the country, although due to cases of corruption, the EU has called for a stop to this practice by its member states.  What makes these crucial documents, bureaucratic papers, have meaning? Do they have meaning?

The granting of citizenship is the exclusive responsibility of a nation-state, an established historical practice from Western European antiquity, revived in the 18th century and reinforced by international legislation following the Second World War and the population movements it caused.  However, citizenship is increasingly a contested concept on several grounds, such as its instrumentally constructed historical nature, link to ‘imagined communities’ of nationalist projects (Anderson, 1983), or the fact of increased mobility in a globalised world and its economy. Giorgio Agamben considers citizenship a type of involuntary membership that imposes itself on every person at birth.  To Agamben, this is a vicious circle – domination by the state that in turn creates the foundation of that state’s sovereignty over its people.  For him, the baby at birth instantly loses its freedom as a human being because it is subsumed into being the subject of a domineering state that can and will regulate it.  What then, of the person who voluntarily or involuntarily leaves that inescapable bond?  For Agamben, the refugee poses a challenge to this imposed state model and demands us to think differently, and anew. Indeed, he says:

In as much as the refugee, an apparently marginal figure, unhinges the old trinity of state-nation-territory, it deserves instead to be regarded as the central figure of our political history…The refugee should be considered for what it is, namely, nothing less than a limit-concept that at once brings a radical crisis to the principles of the nation-state and clears the way for a renewal of categories that can no longer be delayed.  (Agamben, 1996)

Even more of a vicious circle is the international human rights regime that only applies to those who have been granted a civic status, such as ‘citizen’ or ‘refugee’ by a state. The state, then, whether our own or the one we find ourselves in, has the power to define us.  Is our identity defined by our civic status? If it is the state who defines us, who defines the identity of a person, serially nomadic, born to or constrained into ‘refugeetude’ (Nguyen, 2019)?  In my work with artists who have been persecuted or subject to conflict, extreme poverty or other situations obliging them to leave their home countries and relocate to safer places, I often ask myself, how does one keep hold of one’s identity throughout such changes? What does it take to continue to be who you are, to reflect the experience you and your country have been through, are going through?  What does it mean to perhaps put aside that witnessing responsibility you feel to your country and family, and to decide to move on, to start reflecting instead on where you are now?  And what is your identity if it needs to shape-shift in order to argue your case for asylum, receive some type of funding, legal aid or accommodation, a job, bring your family members to where you are?

As Hannah Arendt pointed out, rights may be called ‘universal’ but they are not inalienable (Arendt 1951). The state grants a civic status to a person, and in turn, in principle, that person will have rights.  But states can and do evade or avoid the responsibilities they have under the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol:

While the core human rights standards apply equally to migrants and non-migrants, regardless of their legal status in a country, and prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin…/…there are exceptions to these rules. International human rights law does allow States to treat citizens and non-citizens differently if the difference in treatment serves a legitimate State objective and is proportional to its achievement.  (International Justice Resource Center)

Of all of the rights deferred or evaded by host states, for me, the right to work and education is central, as these activities allow us to define and to develop ourselves, by ourselves.  And yet Zetter and Ruadel document discrepancies between the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that accords refugees the right to work, the reluctance of nearly half of all the Convention’s signatories to allow this right, and the limitations posed by states that do allow limited access to labour markets. The same report lists pretexts for denying or limiting this right, linked to populist fears of immigration and labour market conditions:

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees accords refugees the right to work but many host countries are reluctant to allow this right. This reluctance reflects varying concerns about labour market distortion and limited capacity to absorb new labour, the crowding of certain sectors, availability of jobs for citizens, reduction in wages and decline in working conditions. Host governments may also be swayed by popular opposition to refugee rights to work and by security concerns about large-scale refugee populations settling and working. Of the 145 States Parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention, almost half declare reservations, and even States that grant the right to work usually impose conditions on access to labour markets. The same limitations apply to many of the 48 States that are not States Parties to the Refugee Convention.  (Zetter and Ruadel, 2018).

States are also subject to the international requirement to ensure support, resources and education necessary for productive employment. This legally required support includes ‘technical and vocational guidance and training programmes, policies and techniques to achieve steady economic, social and cultural development and full and productive employment under conditions safeguarding fundamental political and economic freedoms to the individual’.[1]  Higher education also facilitates professional development, but often those awaiting status determination are restricted to courses in the country’s language or non-vocational subjects (O’Reilly, 2020).[2]

In view of the state’s evasion of its responsibilities, I would argue that it has no moral right to decide who has its citizenship; it has no moral right to define the identity of anyone.  My own belief is that citizenship, like solidarity, is something practiced; it is a verb not a noun.[3] What is citizenship, if not an active contribution to one’s community, no matter what type of residence nationality, travel document or legal status one holds?  It’s enacted; it’s active commitment to a community, to a place – ‘active relationships…not simply membership’ (Young, 2011:137).  Indeed, the concept of ‘active citizenship’ has been explored as ‘activist citizenship’ (Isin and Saward, 2003) and as ‘performed’ (Butler, 2004).  If it is clear that our society in Europe is and has always been an influx and outgoing of people with differing cultures, the enacting of citizenship could also include refugees and others mutually supporting one another, something I have increasingly witnessed.  How strong is the need to connect with others with similar memories, doubts – what the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls ‘an accumulation of uncertainties’.

But what happens if or when the person is obstructed from the possibility to contribute, because of racism, xenophobia, the need to stay under the radar, personal trauma, health challenges or structural injustices, which Iris Marion Young defines as:

When social processes put large groups of persons under systemic threat of domination or deprivation – of the means to develop and exercise their capacities – at the same time as these processes enable others to dominate or have a wide range of opportunities…. (Young, 2011).

She called it a moral wrong, not committed by an individual but ‘a consequence of many individuals and institutions acting to pursue their particular goals and interests…’ (ibid.).  Surely the refugee, she who demonstrates today more than ever the inability of the state to uphold its responsibilities under internationally binding law, is also an illustration of systemic injustice.  I am much inspired by Young’s concept of collective responsibility for systemic injustice.

She says:

… we need a conception of responsibility different from the standard…which focuses on individual action and its unique relation to a harm. I propose… a social connection model of responsibility … all those who contribute by their actions to structural processes with some unjust outcomes share responsibility for the injustice. This responsibility is not primarily backward-looking, as the attribution of guilt or fault is, but rather primarily forward-looking. Being responsible in relation to structural injustice means that one has an obligation to join with others … in order to transform the structural processes to make their outcomes less unjust.  (Young, 2011)

In a recent talk for the Martin Roth Initiative, a German-based international programme supporting persecuted artists needing to seek refuge, I suggested that we can connect, looking forward, to transform the bureaucratic processes that dehumanize, define and de-identify.  Can we, I asked, conceive of supportive relocation programmes that allow for giving on both sides?  Can we see that the artist impacted by displacement (or indeed anyone in a similar situation) has as much to give to us and our community as we have to give to her? That, despite her state of mind, which may be quite delicate, she is a valued witness, observer and an actor in what we now can call a permanently disrupted global environment? Can we mutually support one another to see through the others’ eyes and deepen our understanding of the breadth of human experience, or must we always oblige our guest to adapt to our context?

Please note, parts of this text derive from DeVlieg, M.A. (2022) ‘Bridging Citizenship’ in Czajka, A. and O’Brien, A. (eds) Art, Migration and the Production of Radical Democratic Citizenship. London: Rowman & Littlefield International. ISBN: 978-1-78661-278-6.





Adichie, C.N. (2018) Shut Up and Write: the PEN Pinter Prize Lecture 2018. London: Faber and Faber.

Agamben, G. (1996) ‘Form-of-Life’ and ‘Beyond Human Rights’, in Virno, P., and Hardt, M. (eds.) Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 151-58; 159 – 166. Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttssjm

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities.  London: Verso.

Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities.  London: Verso.

Arendt, H. (1951) The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Butler, J. (2004) Undoing Gender. London: Routledge.

Isin, Engin F. and Saward, M. (eds) (2013) Enacting European Citizenship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nguyen, V. (2019) ‘Refugeetude: When Does a Refugee Stop Being a Refugee’, Social Text 37 (2), 109–131. doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7371003.

O’Reilly, Z. (2020) The In-Between Spaces of Asylum and Migration: A Participatory Visual Approach. Cham: Macmillan Palgrave. Springer International Publishing AG.  doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-29171-6

Young, I. (2011) Responsibility for Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/acprof: oso/9780195392388.001.0001.

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