Flexible citizenship and highly skilled migrants: Indians expats in the Netherlands

We’ve noted earlier that the two largest diasporas in the world are formed by Indians and Chinese. The creation of diasporas is not a one-directional process. The international “battle for brains” to recruit socially and economically desirable migrants is in fact a combination of the interests of sending and receiving countries as well as individuals themselves. The growing community of Indian high-skilled workers in the Netherlands is a good example of this trend. A recent paper by Katherine Kirk and Ellen Bal analyses the national migration policies of the Netherlands and India and their impact on the Indian expats working in the Netherlands.

A key concept in the paper is “flexible citizenship”, showing the interaction between the Dutch naturalization practice and the Indian Overseas Citizen of India card. The authors’ assumption in describing flexible citizenship is that “passports [have] become tickets to participate in the global labour market and cannot be seen as proof of loyalty to a nation state or a commitment to the duties of citizenship … [S]tates … play a role in cultivating flexible citizenship in order to improve their own position on the global market by attracting skilled and qualified workers”. Citizenship has additionally become a marker of a cosmopolitan status and much of the Indians interviewed for the paper explicitly mention that in India the decision to migrate and obtain a different citizenship signals economic power.

The number of Indian high skilled migrants, many of whom work in IT, consultancy or management, has increased significantly in the Netherlands, from 9,476 in 1996 to 32,682 in 2016. They enjoy substantial benefits under the Dutch knowledge migrant visa scheme introduced in 2004. For example, the processing time of resident permits is much faster than for other visas; their family members can use a fast-track procedure to enter the Netherlands; their residence permit does not require them to comply with the ordinary civic integration requirements; and they enjoy substantial tax benefits up to a period of eight years after arriving in the Netherlands.

The category of high skilled migrants is clearly seen as a special category under Dutch law. In order to qualify for naturalization after five years of residence, for example, they do not need to take the civic integration exam; instead, passing a language test will suffice. “As such”, the authors note, “the state differentiates between what cosmopolitan, flexible citizens need to know and what other kinds of migrants must know in order to naturalise. Cultural and social integration is only required from the latter”. In their conclusion they also point to the tensions in the contrasting policies towards low and high skilled migrants:

Low-skilled migrants are (framed as) undesirable and their contribution to the Dutch nation-state is imagined as unwanted or useless, although they are expected to stay in the country. High-skilled migrants on the other hand are treated as desirable new citizens, albeit imagined as people in transit. This distinction reflects a new defining measure of class privilege: the ability and legal right to travel freely.

India does not allow dual nationality but has introduced the status of Overseas Citizen of India instead. According to Kirk and Ball, “the OCI identity card enables its holder to travel to India and live and work there with all the rights of citizens except the political right to vote or run for office and the right to buy agricultural land. After five years of OCI and one year of residence in India, Indian citizenship can be obtained if the other citizenship is given up”.

This latter aspect is very important and effectively allows for a form of “flexible citizenship”, as the original Indian citizenship can be re-obtained when the citizenship of the country of residence is no longer required. The most widespread practice among the Indian couples interviewed is that the man applies for naturalization in the Netherlands at some point, knowing that Indian citizenship can be re-acquired upon returning to India. As many Indian workers explain, they primarily apply for Dutch citizenship for career-related reasons: if in competition with someone with a European passport, they would usually lose out because of the time spent to arrange visas. The woman, by contrast, usually opts to keep her Indian citizenship and not apply for naturalization in the Netherlands, so that the couple can still enjoy property rights in India.

The above shows that the “flexible citizenship” of high skilled migrants is dependent on the intricate relationship between transnational mobility, class and gender. Flexible citizenship seems to be more readily available to high skilled migrants compared to low skilled migrants, but the concept is also gendered because “men are usually the ones to secure their own mobility by obtaining new (Dutch) citizenship while wives have to rely on husbands for theirs”.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

Amsterdam | London | Luxembourg


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