Managing migration through earned citizenship - the deserving and the others

Biljana Đorđević

A friend of mine has started learning German. In her own words, a book she has been using is rather unfriendly for language beginners, almost as if the aim of the creators of the book was to dissuade people from learning German. Allegedly, many UK language schools using the book have complained that their students revolted against it, or at least this is what my friend’s German teacher said when comforting her dissatisfied students. The teacher offered an explanation: this someone the book is trying to avert from studying is an immigrant who has to pass A2 or B1 level of German in order to fulfil his/her integration contract and obtain a residence permit in Germany or Austria. Notwithstanding the reliability of the teacher's explanation, it would be hard to deny that the narrative of migrants as lazy, illiterate, ungrateful, and undeserving exists, and it is most often directly connected with migrants language (in)competences.  

Welcome to the land of deserving citizens. Please sign on the dotted line. And earn your rights.

An integration contract is an agreement between an immigrant and a political community on the migrant’s rights and obligations. In order to enjoy the rights of long-term residency, a migrant has an obligation to integrate, that is, to learn the official language, respect shared values, and participate in society. Note that these used to be conditions for naturalization, not for settlement. The contracts have blurred the lines between immigration and citizenship by treating immigrants as citizens in the making who are expected to discharge the duties of citizenship even before naturalization. I prefer replacing the notion of "integration contract" with the notion of "immigration contract" as there are reasonable doubts whether integration of immigrants is really the sole purpose of the contracts. Alternative interpretations see the contract as a tool of migration control aiming at exclusion of undesirable migrants. Only when this task is done does the contract take up an integration role and enforce measures of inclusion for those who have earned residence rights.

As an instrument of integration policy the contract was developed in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, and it has since been adopted in France, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Belgium and several Swiss cantons. The overall idea of attending language and civic courses is present in the UK legislation, although without its formalization in a contract to this date. Sweden and Finland have similar integration programmes, although obligatory only for newcomers on social benefits schemes, not for non-EU immigrants in general. The contracts have already gone through several alterations. Three tendencies can be observed, all originating from the Netherlands and increasingly spreading to other European countries. First, contracts were initially optional but soon after they have become a compulsory instrument followed by various sanctions in the case of non-compliance. Second, language and civic courses are, logically, to be taken once the immigrant is in the receiving country, but it is becoming an unwritten rule that for certain categories of migrants, such as those who want to immigrate within the framework of family reunification or family formation, basic language skills will be tested even before arrival to the country. In other words, there is a tendency towards external integration or integration abroad. The integration abroad concept can be traced back to a preferential immigration scheme for Spätaussiedler, ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union who wanted to come to Germany, and has been followed by comprehensive integration measures non-applicable to other migrants at the time. The typical post-war guest workers were never offered such integration facilities, as German governments did not consider the possibility of these people staying. Responsibility for their integration, if assumed at all, was placed on their employers, not the state. The German reforms began with accepting the change from no responsibility for integration to shared responsibility of society and migrant. If the function of oral German (dialect) tests for Spätaussiedler was to prove their “Germanness”, the new language tests for non-Germans have been set up to prove their willingness to integrate in German society and potentially become German citizens.

One would think that the rights and responsibilities of migrants and political communities would be clearly expressed in the contracts which aim at integration as a two-way process, but their visible emphasis is on one party’s obligations only - the migrant’s obligations related to his or her own integration. The community has to assist migrants as individuals in their integration by organizing various courses and trainings, but the real role of the community in "two-way-process-integration" should be greater than that. The commitment to equality of opportunity and to fight against discrimination is not stated in the actual contract but is, by and large, self-assumed on behalf of host societies. What is worrying, however, in light of the idea of reciprocity underlying every contract, is the third tendency - more than ever evident in times of austerity: the costs of integration classes which used to be covered by ‘integration states’ are increasingly falling on migrants.

Language testing is the least controversial and most easily monitored part of the contract. There are indeed courses tailored specifically to the needs of immigrants who ought to pass integration tests. The Goethe-Institut, for instance, admits that it is crucial to avoid creating bureaucratic obstacles that hinder obtaining evidence of language knowledge. Nevertheless, this often happens. As Germany started to use the "integration abroad" concept, would-be immigrants needed to pass pre-integration language tests before setting foot in the country. I know of a person who was not allowed to travel to Germany and see his just born child because for months there were no slots available for language examination at the official institution.

What are shared values? The principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law are usually articulated in the contracts although the rhetoric of shared values has been followed by a communitarian ethos of insistence on “Britishness”, “Dutchness”, “Danishness”, “Germanness” etc. Denmark’s Declaration of integration and active citizenship in Danish society is more precise about the values of the state's major concern. An immigrant needs to sign, among other things, that he/she understands and accepts that "it is punishable in Denmark to commit actual violence against or threaten one’s spouse and others, including children", "circumcision of girls and the use of force to contract marriage are punishable in Denmark", and that "Danish society strongly condemns acts of terrorism". The declaration dangerously comes close to profiling all immigrants as violent, sexist terrorists who belong to a group that are in persistent opposition to the liberal-democratic order.

The implicit expectation of the contract is participation of immigrants in wider social, economic and political life. There is a fear of “community withdrawal” and sleepwalking into ghettoisation and segregation. An even greater fear is of welfare-dependent migrants and further burdening of already fiscally diminished societies. The obligation of participation means a duty to seek employment and achieve self-sufficiency.

Integration deficit

Not every foreigner’s rights of residence are conditional in this way, although the scope of the target group varies from country to country. EU citizens, by virtue of their European citizenship, have a right to settle in any of the EU member states. The so-called gold-collar migrants of non-EU origin who are openly recruited and invited as highly-qualified, are also in most cases exempted. The reasons are explicitly given - exceptions must be made for those with high potential to contribute to the economy. It seems that earning residence rights, and ultimately citizenship rights, depends on one's standing on the ladder of economic potential. Although it is said that all non-EEA citizens have to enter the agreement in Austria, ‘key personnel’ such as managers, and their family members fulfil the agreement automatically as their qualifications are regarded as sufficient for integration. In Belgium, in Flanders, where the contract is mandatory as opposed to optional in Wallonia, researchers, academics, highly skilled workers aiming to stay no more than four years, foreigners with a PhD, and so forth are exempted. The Netherlands’ category of exempted persons is much wider – it includes nationals of the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Monaco and Lichtenstein. An explanation for this discrimination on the basis of nationality is that exempted nationals are coming from countries with comparable levels of economic, social and political development to European countries.  When discussing pilot integration contracts in the canton of Basel, the president of the Executive Council of the canton Basel-Stadt said that "for example, Joe Jimenez, the new CEO of Basel-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis, could not be expected to take part" in integration courses as this could be off-putting. The assumption is, clearly, that integration courses and tests are not off-putting for the foreign residents with an ‘integration deficit’ for whom the contracts have actually been designed. These are newcomers from third countries, family members of EU citizens, family members of third country nationals earning less than a set amount of money, and in some countries refugees and even foreigners seeking admission as religious leaders (e.g. imams).

Neoliberal communitarian zeitgeist

While contracts have been largely examined as potential new form of discrimination or, somewhat less worrisome, as a communitarian technique, it may be that they can also be explained as a neoliberal device for privileging those who possess the right knowledge and skills for the market. They are the ‘deserving’ ones who have ‘earned’ citizenship. The others may earn their rights only by learning a language, understanding the shared values, and becoming as profitable labourers as possible. Neoliberalism first, communitarianism to follow.

Until the 2004 Irish citizenship referendum which ended the acquisition of citizenship rights of babies solely on the grounds of their birth in the country, Ireland was the only EU country to grant such a right. It is hardly a coincidence that the referendum voting away the so-called citizenship tourism, took place at a time of increased emphasis on the need to earn EU citizenship, aside from being entitled to it by way of inheritance. Immigrant integration policies and citizenship techniques were intended to nurture good residents and good citizens.

For a while, earned citizenship figured as the UK's official concept that was supposed to come into force in 2011. The potential citizen would earn points on his or her path to citizenship, and instead of applying for permanent residence, would apply for probationary citizenship. The former British PM Gordon Brown, in his 2008 speech on managed migration and earned citizenship delivered at the Camden Centre stated that “for people coming to Britain, and wanting to become British, citizenship should not only be a matter of their choice but should depend upon actively entering into a contract through which, by virtue of responsibilities accepted, the right of citizenship is earned..." Even though it has been decided that the new system would be too complicated and ineffective, the underlining idea of earning citizenship is still part of the UK’s integration policy.

Neoliberal integrationist policies intentionally rely on threats and sanctions to achieve compliance: visa and residence permit rejections, social benefits reductions, fines, detention, and deportation. The former Dutch Immigration and Integration Minister even attempted to demand that already naturalized immigrants attend integration courses, which would subject them to denaturalisation in case of failing the tests. The demand would have been unconstitutional, so it was withdrawn. The mandatory nature of the contracts and their reliance on the disciplining power of the state is an important marker of these contracts, even if they do not always have teeth. With regard to monitoring immigrants’ respect for shared values, how could they? The anticipated mistrust of immigrants underscored in these contracts goes hand in hand with the need to distinguish between those who have "earned" rights and "others" who have not.

This resembles, to certain extent, another story about different contracts yet manifesting similar "earn-your-rights" logic. The city of Belgrade has recently started to remove - frequently through forced evictions - informal Roma settlements where people lived in extremely poor conditions, with no clean water or electricity. In return, evicted Roma got to use mobile housing units (MHUs) in the newly created settlements. Naturally, the tenants had to sign contracts on the use of MHUs offered by the City Council. Beside some standard regulations, one article of the contract conditions the usage of the MHUs by demonstration of an active relationship of adult tenants toward activities of the City Council with regard to obligatory socialization of individuals and their families. Socialization implies school attendance of Roma children from the settlements, education and employment of adults, and adopted rules of good behavior toward representatives of the Belgrade Secretariat for Social Protection, etc. Tenants and their families may be denied the right to use the MHU if they are seen to be failing to socialize and comply with the rules of good behavior, as well as the house rules (e.g. prohibition of urination next to MHU, prohibition of deliberate blockage of sewer drains, prohibition of inhuman treatment of animals), a right they obtained as the country's most socially vulnerable persons whose homes have previously been demolished. Prejudicial profiling seems rather similar to the one implicit in the Denmark’s declaration of integration. It still puzzles me whether we have a case of spin-off of the immigrations contracts in an EU candidate country or mere zeitgeist.


Brown, Gordon, Speech by the Prime Minister the Right Honourable Gordon Brown MP on Managed Migration and Earned Citizenship Delivered at the Camden Centre (London, on Wednesday 20th February 2008).

Joppke, Christian, “Immigrants and Civic Integration in Western Europe”, in Keith

Banting, Thomas J. Courchene and F. Leslie Seidle (eds.), Belonging?  Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada, (Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2007), pp. 1-30.

Ministry of Integration, Declaration on Integration and Active Citizenship in Danish Society, (Copenhagen: Ministry of Integration, 2010)

van Houdt, Friso, Suvarierol, Semin, and Schinkel, Willem "Neoliberal communitarian citizenship:  Current trends towards 'earned citizenship'  in the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands",  International Sociology 26:3 (2011) pp. 408-432

Triadafilopoulos, Triadafilos, “Illiberal Means to Liberal Ends? Understanding Recent Immigrant Integration Policies in Europe”, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 37:6 (2011), pp. 861-880


Photo 1: "Directions". Somewhere in the land of earning citizens. 
Photo 2: "I have a goose". Somewhere in Serbia. Courtesy of Bojan Petrović - Bokac.