“When I travelled as a child,” remembers Maria Chenut, “I could take something out of my bag, set it down, and feel that I had moved in.” In August 2013, aged 37, Maria moved from Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to San Francisco, USA, with three-and-a-half tons of possessions packed into 223 boxes. Even after she had offloaded some 300 non-essential items onto friends, her personal effects filled 10 vans before they were packed into a shipping container and sent on a six-week trip to California. Born in Paris to a French father and an American mother, she holds dual nationality and had lived in France, the USA, Japan and Italy, before settling in Spain for 13 years.
“I think I have been a foreigner everywhere,” Maria reflects, but with her EU and US passports, she has technically been at home in both regions. The way we think about nationality has rapidly changed to keep pace with an ever-more mobile world population: in 2000, one in 35 people did not live in the country of their birth; by 2011, that ratio had leapt to one in 25. And while China, India, Indonesia and Japan still automatically terminate a person’s citizenship if they claim another nationality, the past three decades have seen a steady trend toward dual citizenship: to date, 87 countries allow their citizens to claim it, almost twice as many as in 1980.
Some, however, lack the luxury of choice. Twelve million people worldwide are not recognized as citizens of any country, and no citizenship means no official identity, no civil rights, no chance to work, and no place to live. Most of them, like Kenya’s Nubians or the 93,000 Bidoon in Kuwait, found themselves cut out when new countries were created, while others are victims of systematic discrimination, such as the 200,000 people of Haitian origin in the Dominican Republic who had their citizenship revoked by that country’s government in September 2013.
In Spain, between 3,000 and 12,000 Sahrawi have been living for decades on the fringes of society. At various times in the 20th century, their leaders proclaimed their allegiance to Morocco, Spain, France and Mauritania, but in 1978, when the Moroccan military occupied their strip of coast in the disputed Western Sahara region of northwest Africa, the Sahrawi found themselves with no land and no state. Today they run a government-in-exile in Algeria, while hundreds of Sahrawi apply to receive official recognition of their statelessness from Spain’s Ministry of the Interior. The week after Maria left for the USA, the first of them, a 46-year-old woman, secured that status. With it, she received a Spanish identity card, the rights to live and work in Spain, and, finally, the chance to become a citizen.