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Report shines light on murky process of becoming a citizen

Foreigners wishing to be naturalised must be deemed people of “good character” and people who “would be a good citizen to Malta”.

Foreigners wishing to be naturalised must be deemed people of “good character” and people who “would be a good citizen to Malta”.

They might speak Maltese, qualify as “suitable citizens” of “good character” and have lived here for years.

No publicly available guidelines exist to explain how a candidate’s suitability or character is assessed

But foreigners hoping to become naturalised Maltese citizens can throw their applications out the window if they happen to get on the Home Affairs Minister’s bad side.

Every naturalisation application filed in Malta has to be signed off personally by the minister to be approved. And with the minister’s discretion being absolute – and not up for question or appeal – questions arise as to just how transparent the existing system is.

A new report published by the European University Institute in Florence, Italy shines a light on this overwhelming ministerial power while arguing that the lack of transparency might actually be intentional.

Keeping naturalisation procedures arbitrary and secretive, report author Daniela DeBono noted, makes it easier for authorities to deter criticism and keep a firm lid on the number of citizens allowed to become naturalised Maltese.

Because naturalisation includes a residency requirement – applicants must have lived in Malta for five out of the previous seven years – successful candidates are granted the right to vote.

In a country where elections can be won or lost by a couple of thousand votes, each naturalised citizen automatically assumes political weight, Dr DeBono, who lectures in international migration at Malmo University, Sweden, argued.

Lack of transparency and data are endemic throughout the naturalisation process, the study finds. No promotional material encouraging naturalisation exists, and no ceremonies to confer citizenship are held.

Although “adequate knowledge” of Maltese or English is listed as an application prerequisite, Dr De­Bono found that language proficiency was never formally assessed.

Aside from residency and language requirements, foreigners wishing to be naturalised must satisfy two further, highly opaque criteria: they must be deemed people of “good character” and people who “would be a good citizen to Malta”.

And despite the stated eligibility criteria, Dr DeBono quotes department director Joe Mizzi as noting that naturalisation is only granted for “exceptional, humanitarian purposes”.

No publicly-available guidelines exist to explain how a candidate’s suitability or character is assessed by officials at the Department for Citizenship and Expatriate Affairs. Nor can applicants apply for integration courses to better accustom themselves to local society – no such courses exist.

Coupled with the minister’s right to turn applications down on a whim, these shortcomings put many people off from applying for naturalisation, the report argued.

That may be the Government’s intention all along. But Dr DeBono argued that limiting the number of naturalised citizens by muddying up application procedures by limiting transparency was unjust and opened the Government up to charges of abuse.

Things were unlikely to change any time soon, the report found: despite clear transparency issues with the existing system, political parties are happy to limit naturalised citizens to the bare minimum.

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