This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Being a citizen of the country where you live is an invisible privilege many of us take for granted. Citizenship guarantees you social and political rights, including the right to reside in your country and travel back and forth from it whenever you want. In most EU countries, you become a citizen if one of your parents is a citizen, but some member states grant you citizenship if you were born there and meet some other conditions, even if your parents are foreigners.
For migrants who came to Europe and don’t fit these two categories, the only path forward is naturalisation, a process that can be extremely expensive and complicated. According to the 2020 Migrant Integration Policy Index, only six of the 27 EU Member states offer “slightly favourable” opportunities for migrants to become citizens, and only one of them, Sweden, had a “highly favourable” naturalisation policy. Because of this, thousands of people across Europe fall through the cracks of the system and are not considered fully equal under the law, even if they’ve lived in the same country for decades.
Two leading scholars on migration in Europe, Luuk van der Baaren and Maarten Vink, explained in an email that it’s very difficult to estimate how many people find themselves stuck in this bureaucratic grey area. Citizenship laws vary greatly from country to country, and some situations can be quite specific. For instance, in Italy, up to 1 million people cannot obtain citizenship because they missed a one-year deadline to finish their application when they were 18. In the UK, civil society organisations have flagged that the cost of naturalisation can be prohibitive, at about €1,500 (£1,282) per person just to apply, without any guarantees.
In the Netherlands, about 10,000 refugees known as “pardoners” were granted the right to stay in the country indefinitely back in 2007. But two years later, they were prohibited from obtaining a regular Dutch passport after the nationality rules were tightened. Some of them have been in the country for 20 years, but every time they try to take out insurance, plan their future or travel, they’re reminded of their unequal legal status. In 2021, about 3,000 pardoners who were minors before the laws changed were allowed to become citizens, but the rest still don’t know if they’ll ever get a Dutch passport.
I spoke to four pardoners about how growing up as foreigners in the country they call home has affected their lives.
Most people see their grandparents regularly, but I’ve never even met my family in China. After living in the Netherlands for years, my immediate family were given indefinite residence permits, which we could use to apply for a travel document that looks like a regular Dutch passport, but it’s a different colour.
At first, we were extremely happy – finally, we’d be able to travel around freely and see our family. But when we went to pick them up, I was shocked. “Valid for all countries, except for China,” it reads [this travel document allows holders to travel anywhere except their country of origin]. We finally had a passport of sorts, but it came with all of these condescending restrictions. It literally says, “The passport holder doesn’t have Dutch nationality.” I was a foreigner and felt like one.
In school, other people had IDs to show the world who they were, while mine mostly told me who I wasn’t. As a teenager, I was dealing with an identity crisis – I kept asking myself where I belonged. Actually, I’ve never known what it’s like to be part of a group or to be fully accepted. I can tell you one thing: it’s pretty lonely.
Now, I’m finally getting a real Dutch passport and I feel grateful – but also a bit screwed over. One of the first things I wanted to do is travel to my grandparents with my family. Sadly, my parents won’t be able to come. My heart breaks at the thought of visiting my grandparents without them. But my grandparents’ health has deteriorated, so we don’t know how much longer they’ll be alive.
I work as an editor, and earlier this year we were very busy preparing for the Dutch parliamentary elections. I’ve always been interested in politics, so I was happy to brainstorm ideas to get people out voting. At some point, a colleague asked who I was voting for, and I said I wasn’t allowed to. That’s when it hit me – I was trying to encourage young people to vote, but my own voice has never been heard.
My family is from Armenia. From a very young age, we have been taught to be grateful that we get to stay in the Netherlands – by our families, by society… we even tell ourselves that. And we are incredibly grateful. But people don’t really know about our experiences. For years, even I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the injustice I had to endure.
Not owning a passport makes me feel like a second-class citizen. Growing up here, I’ve always wanted to fit in, but I always felt I never really could. I wasn’t given the same opportunities as my classmates or my friends.
I’ve always had to live my life within the constraints of my reality. I’ve never dared to think of what I’ll do once I finally receive my passport. I guess I’ll have to get used to having more freedom. I’m mostly just happy I won’t need to call the authorities 15 times just to check whether I’m allowed to do something.
In 2016, I went on holiday to Turkey. When I arrived at Istanbul airport, I got some weird looks at passport control. I explained I had my Dutch travel document and that the Turkish consulate in the Netherlands had issued a visa for my trip. The officer looked at his colleague and rolled his eyes. I was mortified – it felt like the whole world was watching me.
They eventually let me through, but on the way back I had more issues at the airport in Amsterdam. My travel document states I cannot travel to Bosnia, my country of origin. I was aware of that and I would never take that risk. Still, the officers were suspicious, and I had to prove to them that I hadn’t secretly tried to sneak into Bosnia.
I was nine when I fled Bosnia with my dad and younger brother. We were granted an indefinite Dutch residence permit when I was 20. Only five years later, I realised how weird our situation was. I’m not an asylum seeker anymore, I’m allowed to stay, but I can’t obtain Dutch citizenship. I’ve applied for it but wasn’t approved. That was hard for me to accept, it felt like a slap in the face.
Maybe I shouldn’t feel optimistic, because I don’t want to be disappointed again, but deep inside I really believe things will somehow work out.