Academic journal article Migration Letters

A Black Republic: Citizenship and Naturalisation Requirements in Liberia

Academic journal article Migration Letters

A Black Republic: Citizenship and Naturalisation Requirements in Liberia

Article excerpt


Most research about citizenship and naturalisation requirements focuses on the Global North (for example, Alba & Foner, 2015; Brubaker, 1998; Kymlicka, 1996; Ong, 2003), and less on practices in the Global South. But as this paper and the other articles in this volume show, naturalisation and citizenship laws have been restrictive in both the Global North and the Global South. Since exclusionary practices in the Global North are well known, this study focuses on those in a country of the Global South: Liberia. Liberia is often referred to as "Little America" in Africa and, has a constitution that is -like other institutions and practices- modelled after the U.S. Like the original U.S. Constitution1, Liberian Constitution limits citizenship to a particular group. The difference is that the U.S. Constitution favoured Whites and was later amended, whereas the Liberian Constitution continues to reserve citizenship exclusively for Blacks.

There is a long history of linking citizenship, nationhood, and race. A point also observed by Mariner (2003), "citizenship has often been restricted along racial or ethnic lines, with certain groups being excluded from the citizenry" (p. 65). It is thus not surprising, that race, ethnicity, and descent play important roles in a number of nationality and naturalisation laws across the globe (Abdullah, 2003; Beydoun, 2013; Kaj, 2012; Mariner, 2003; Obi, 2008). Citizenship based on jus sanguinis -Latin for "right of blood"- is perhaps one of the most extreme versions of how nation, nationality, and race can be linked or can be construed as being linked (see also, Kaj, 2012). The ideology that only certain individuals are, because of their "blood"/descent/race (automatically), part of the nation-state, is a mechanism of exclusion since it limits citizenship by birth, and in some cases by naturalisation, to a particular group of people. Most, though not all, countries have provisions in their citizenship and naturalisation laws that allow for individuals who fulfil certain requirements to become members (citizens) of the particular nation state. International law, despite its commitment to limit ethnoracial discrimination, permits countries to discriminate in their citizenship and naturalisation laws based on race and ethnicity, provided that it does not exclude a specific nationality (Mariner, 2003). (See for example, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969))2. Hence, Liberia's constitution that limits citizenship -both by birth and naturalisation- to only Blacks comply with international conventions.

In this article, I focus on the barriers to Liberian citizenship and how they affect the Lebanese community; the largest non-Black population in Liberia. I argue that long-standing (cultural) belief systems linking Liberian identity to race obstruct movements to abolish race-based and exclusionary citizenship and naturalisation laws in Liberia. The origins of these belief systems are tied to the history of the U.S. and its racial exclusion and the creation of Liberia as a state to grant American Blacks freedom from racial oppression and place of redemption for those excluded in the U.S. and some Caribbean islands.

Data and methods

Data for this research were collected through longitudinal ethnographic research3 in the Liberian refugee and immigrant community in Staten Island, New York4 in the U.S. that began in 2009. The data include hundreds of hours of participant observation and in-depth interviews with 55 Liberian immigrants / refugees (29 women; 26 men), which were conducted in English and each lasted between 1.5 and 2.5 hours. The Liberian immigrants/refugees who participated in the in-depth interviews -some of them were interviewed multiple times- were all Black, from a variety of ethnic groups and educational backgrounds, and ranged in age from 16 to 79.

The rationale for interviewing Liberians living outside of Liberia is twofold. …

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