Atypical membership statuses and ethnicity

We previously discussed different dimensions of citizenship and touched on ethnic and civic conceptions to shape citizenship policies. A particularly important study in this respect was Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Written in 1992, William Rogers Brubaker theorised two models of nationhood – ethnic in Germany and civic in France – by also relying on the interpretation of rules concerning admission to legal status (nationality). Whereas the accuracy and theoretical soundness of his views have been contested in later scholarship, they continue to structure public perceptions and political debates with direct consequences for nationality law in a number of countries. For example, allegations of “ethnic” citizenship or commitments to “civic” citizenship can play important roles in the reform of nationality laws (e.g. the introduction of ius soli provisions in Germany in 2000 in order to incorporate the large group of former guest workers and their descendants).



Ethnicity and nationalism have long been at the centre of the debate about the cultural basis of legal and political membership. The privileged inclusion or the explicit exclusion of certain people on grounds of ethnicity or race was a common feature of nationality and immigration policies in the past. The gradual abandonment of such practices due to the spread of liberal and human rights norms has led authors to theorise about postnational membership. Such ideas have not fully materialised, however, and the Oxford Handbook on Citizenship therefore rightly noted in 2017 that “contrary to predictions that it would become increasingly redundant in a globalizing world, citizenship is back with a vengeance”.


There is evidence that ethnicity remains an important component of contemporary membership policies. For example, in several European countries, rules of preferential acquisition of nationality by co-ethnics are the major legal channels through which nationality is acquired. While this is most noticeable in Central and Eastern Europe, ethnicity also plays a role in special provisions regarding the acquisition and loss of nationality Europe-wide and worldwide. For example, outside Europe, Liberia and Haiti, among others, are known to use ethnic criteria in the regulation of nationality.


In countries where “nationality” is seen as membership of an ethnic community, the nationality law is more likely to be responsive to ethnicity through, for example, special provisions regarding the preferential acquisition of nationality by persons of a particular ethnicity. Moreover, in certain cases, ethnic membership is regulated through special laws, such as diaspora and co-ethnic laws, which are often relevant for nationality law (e.g. provisions on co-ethnics that rely on definitions and ethnic criteria from special co-ethnic laws).


In this connection it is also worth highlighting atypical citizenship and entry arrangements. Faced with issues such as (de)colonisation, national minorities, cross-border co-ethnic population, diasporas, refugees and stateless persons, countries have adopted policies that run from the grant of special ‘ethnic-status cards’ such as the Hungarian Ethnic Identity Card, to nationality schemes without political rights, to the recognition of full dual citizenship.


According to Kovács et al. the goal of the Hungarian “Status Law”, introduced in 2001, was to create direct links to transborder ethnic Hungarians. Raising protest from countries with substantial groups of citizens of Hungarian ethnicity because they considered the law a direct interference in their internal affairs, Hungary has claimed that its policy served to ensure undisturbed cultural, economic and family relations between Hungarians proper and those of Hungarian descent living abroad, often for several generations. For this purpose the Status Law issued a certificate, called a “Certificate of Hungarian Nationality” for ethnic Hungarians living in countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania and Ukraine.


Something similar can be seen in Ethiopia. Hundreds of thousands of people of Ethiopian descent have left the country for economic reasons or due to the political turbulence during military rule from 1974 to 1991, but Ethiopia does not recognize dual nationality. Currently living in foreign countries, many of them have for practical reasons accepted the citizenship of their host countries. Although advocacy for dual nationality was not successful, since 2002 “foreign nationals of Ethiopian origin” may be issued special identity cards that entitle the holder to various benefits. As Bronwen Manby explains, “holders of such cards enjoy rights and privileges that other foreigners do not, including visa-free entry, residence, and employment, the right to own immovable property in Ethiopia, and the right to access public services”.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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