The Paradox of Dual Citizenship – Challenging the Personal and the Political

Illustration: ‘Bureaucracy’ by Pardafash

Themrise Khan

On the surface, dual citizenship appears an attractive proposition. Some are born with it. Others have to struggle to earn it. Some identify with both the dualities they hold. Others prefer only one. All have to adhere to some level of political arrangements by states in order to sustain both sets of citizenship. 

The “duality” of having multiple citizenships, creates a tension between migrants, citizens and nations. This creates a clash of not just culture, identity and belonging, but also political and legal consequences. These factors play a large part in how we choose, or are forced to choose, to identify ourselves and where we feel we belong.

As a dual national, I have been privy to this tension via my own migration journey from the marginalized South to the privileged North. “Belonging” to two worlds which sit on polar opposite sides of the cultural and economic spectrum, has challenged my notions of why we choose to extend our identity beyond a singular nation[1]. Against this backdrop, I explore how dual citizenship forces individuals to choose between the personal and the political, creating a paradox in itself.

The Personal

I am the offspring of a generation who were forced to move from their home as refugees to a country that was specially “created” for them, based on their religion. The Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 left many metaphorical scars on those who had to endure forced separation from what they considered their homeland. But it was also this forced separation which provided me with birthright citizenship. The desire to obtain a second, was a purely personal decision to look for better opportunities elsewhere, encouraged, by the fact that my country allowed its nationals to maintain dual citizenship.

This mattered. Because dual citizenship to me was not about having two nationalities, but being able to maintain personal ties with my country of birth while exploring a new political life in my host country[2]. Meticulously following all the administrative and legal obligations holding two different passports entailed, in theory this should have been a simple balance to achieve.

In reality, it has been anything but. Melding two nations so far apart in ideology, wealth and culture, is not possible simply by virtue of a passport, the prime state-bureaucratic identifier of citizenship. Neither, as I soon realized, is it possible to pick and choose which aspect of each citizenship we would like to avail.

Sociologist Rainer Baubcok states, that in order to understand the motives that migrants have for choosing a particular legal status or exercising a particular citizenship right, we need to look at the citizenship opportunity structure that is jointly produced by countries of origin and settlement. That both these countries allowed me to retain my birth citizenship y while taking on another, was both a structural and personal factor that influenced my decision. Had either one opted to not recognize dual citizenship, my decision would have perhaps been different.

But what this decision also led to, was me “being” two completely different persons, based on the social and economic opportunity each country provided its citizens. In origin, I was tied to the religious, cultural and social expectations a conservative Southern country imposed on its citizens, especially women. In settlement, I was free to do and choose what felt most important to me without fear of repercussions, because the State did not impose any criteria on my belongingness. This and a set of personal ties, is also what led me to choose my particular country of settlement, from a host of other countries that I could have chosen.

But this also meant, that I was unable to create an exchange of values or ideas between my two homes, so opposed were they in practise. Scholars of transnationalism and diaspora such as Peggy Levitt, rightly point out that the divisive and hierarchical nature of all social groups also characterize transnational and diasporic communities. Many of them continue to maintain power hierarchies imported from their homelands, and recreate them in new places. For instance, my diaspora community in country of settlement, replicated many, in my view, repressive cultural, national and religious values, which I specifically left my country of origin to escape from. Instead, they followed me thousands of miles away to a country where I hoped I would not have to tolerate such values.

This dichotomy of wanting to retain our former selves in our new selves, has led to many migrants either rejecting their culture outright in their new homes, or embracing it. I too was caught among this tension, ultimately having to choose one or the other.

The Political

Dual citizenship poses the challenge of positioning a collective set of political arrangements within the realm of individual choice. Because citizenship regulations work towards influencing individual choice and vice versa, such as choosing a country that allows dual nationality and the legal flexibility to belong many places at once. They in essence, politicize the individual itself as a means to achieving a political end – in this case, gaining new citizens and/or overseas diaspora. Dual citizenship thus creates an important distinction – the state as political institution, and the nation as cultural community – creating the nation-state as a combination of the two.

But in reality, dual citizenship creates a set of inequalities between origin and host countries, and by default, among its citizens, both old and new. Particularly when there are existing social and economic inequalities between the two countries in question. This is what legal scholar, Peter J Spiro terms the equality paradox of dual citizenship. Spiro delineates citizenship as being premium and non-premium. The former is significantly advantaged in sociological terms over the latter, creating an inherent inequality between citizenships.

I moved from bearing a non-premium citizenship in the Global South, to a premium citizenship in the prosperous Global North. This created an inequality in how I was perceived by both countries. In the former, my new identity was seen as a “privilege”, afforded to a select few, whereas in the latter, I was seen as yet another naturalized citizen, one of many.

This follows on from Spiro’s assertion that dual citizenship in the South leads to the creation of haves and have-nots. The former can avail of the advantages developed economies provide their citizens (e.g. a powerful passport), while continuing to enjoy major advantages in their countries of origin (e.g. overseas asset ownership, tax incentives etc.) which their single-national counterparts cannot.

After gaining my Northern citizenship, I was indeed a “have” in my homeland. I possessed an enviable second passport which brought with it a wealth of power and access, including the option of “escaping” conflict or economic turbulence. In a time of COVID-19, I could even avail accessing the vaccine in my host country much before my origin nationals could, if I so wished. But despite such access, in settlement, I was viewed as a “have-not”, someone on whom citizenship had been conferred by the state after an administrative process, rather than by birth.

So what Spiro terms as advantages, are in reality, barriers to a more equitable citizenship regime. Having such choices available to me, meant once again, having to choose where I “belonged”, based not on natural affinity or birthright, but rather on political comforts and opportunities. 

The Paradox

In both these cases, I have as a dual national, been presented with a hard choice. One that has challenged my sense of belonging and forced me to choose a side, instead of blending the very best of what both worlds have to offer. Not just in terms of personal desires and connections, but also political ideals and equality.

This is one of the reasons some are calling for the end of citizenship altogether, what citizenship scholar Dimitry Kochenov has termed “Passport Apartheid”. For Kochenov, citizenship has emerged as the main tool that reinforces global inequality. He finds the belief that citizenship is necessary for democracy, as deeply problematic and a reflection of the racism and inequality created by Empires who denied citizenship to those “not white”. As one writer has put it, citizenship is “indivisible from the colonialism and racism in which it was founded”.

Indeed, for many of us who migrate from non-white postcolonial societies to those of our former white colonizers, the idea of obtaining their citizenship is perhaps more about denouncing the divisions created by colonialism, than it is choosing a country that may provide us with better opportunities. Indeed, as someone who belonged to a postcolonial society and sought citizenship of one that had openly colonized the Indigenous, this reality has been painful to accept. The remnants of colonialism still resonate among many of us who strive to “belong” to now “multicultural”, but in reality, still very white societies, where in many ways, we are still having to prove ourselves as citizens. Meanwhile in our origin countries, we are viewed as having chosen an “exit option”, that puts us above the national milieu. In exclusionary political discourses, many dual nationals are also now undergoing a questioning of our “loyalties” and allegiances to each country.  

So where does that leave the practise of dual citizenship in a world fraught by more divisions than we have ever seen? A world, in which migration itself is now seen more as a divider, than an equalizer.

As a dual national, I am securely conscious of what each of my nationalities means to me. But my insecurity comes from how each state and its citizens view me. This creates a paradox of dual citizenship – a fractured sense of belonging spurred by both the personal and political.

Themrise N Khan is an independent professional with over 25 years of experience in international development, social policy (developing countries) and global migration. She has published both academically and as a research practitioner, on issues ranging from development aid intervention in fragile states, to female labour migration. She is based in Pakistan and blogs at www.lamehdood.wordpress.com.


[1] This blog focuses on voluntary migration, as opposed to forced or involuntary migration, where the impact of personal choice is minimal or non-existent.

[2] This alludes to political freedoms such as the right to free speech, religious non-discrimination, the right to vote etc. which vary from country to country.

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