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The power of the passport

Refugees at railway station

Should governments make it easier for migrants to take up citizenship? There are tangible benefits, says Dr Dominik Hangartner of the Department of Methodology, whose research finds that naturalisation acts as a catalyst for social and political integration.

In September 2015, the European Union (EU) agreed a quota system to distribute the 120,000 refugees currently located in Italy, Greece and Hungary; with large numbers of refugees continuing to cross the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East in search of a new life, mass migration looks set to be one of the defining issues of European politics this decade. But how can governments support their new residents to assimilate quickly? A new study by Dr Dominik Hangartner suggests that citizenship might be the answer, finding that naturalisation increases integration, thereby offering a route for policymakers to strengthen migrants’ social and political bonds with their adopted nations.

Hangartner’s research focused on his native Switzerland. With one in four citizens foreign-born and often facing social and political marginalisation, integration is one of the country’s long-standing political challenges. Working with research partners Jens Hainmueller and Giuseppe Pietrantuono, he found a perfect case study to test the effects of naturalisation— 46 municipalities in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, where public ballots were used to decide each citizenship application from the 1970’s until 2003 (when the Swiss government ruled the practice unconstitutional).

During this period, individuals who had resided in Switzerland for 12 consecutive years and had no criminal convictions could put themselves forward for the vote. A short resume for each migrant was sent out to the local citizens before the ballot; applicants who received over 50 per cent "yes" votes from the community were approved for Swiss citizenship.

To mimic experiment conditions, Hangartner’s study focused on the 768 people whose applications were either barely accepted or barely rejected. For these two groups of applicants, approval was often down to luck; there were no differences in their age, sex, language skills, or number of years spent living in Switzerland.

Dr Hangartner said: “The study only focused on individuals who had similar levels of motivation and resources to apply for citizenship. The outcome of their application depended on random factors such as the weather on referendum day encouraging a few more or less Swiss Social Democrats (left-of-centre political party whose supporters tend to be more welcoming to migrants) to turn out to vote.”

The next stage of the project was searching municipal archives to track down former applicants and persuade them to participate in the research – a painstaking and labour-intensive task due to the 15 or 20 years that had passed since their application. Participants were then interviewed in their native languages on topics such as how often they voted, their levels of political knowledge, if they felt they have a stake in Swiss politics, and whether they felt discriminated against. As Hangartner says: “We had to use the shoe-leather over two years to collect the data – this information simply did not exist.”

When the results were compiled and analysed, the findings surprised Hangartner and his colleagues – migrants who became Swiss citizens by a narrow margin more than 15 years ago are now considerably more socially and politically integrated than migrants whose applications were narrowly rejected. The naturalised citizens showed higher levels of political knowledge, increased likelihood of reading Swiss newspapers, and a level of participation in elections that was similar to Swiss natives.

Reflecting on the project, Dr Hangartner says: “I thought that, given citizens have to live in the country for 12 years before they can apply for citizenship, just getting a passport would not make big difference to them. But the social and political benefits were really sizeable.”

A further significant finding from the research was that migrants from marginalised ethnic groups, such as Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, stood to benefit the most from naturalisation. Foreigners from these countries, which generally have a more difficult time integrating than citizens from the EU, saw the greatest political and social benefits from gaining citizenship, offsetting some of the disadvantages that come with belonging to an ethnic minority.

Hangartner and his colleagues plan to expand their research to other European countries to investigate how government policy affects different types of immigrants, including refugees, undocumented migrants and long-term residents. He feels that this work and other future projects can help inform evidence based policy-making of European governments: “As social scientists, we have to contribute to the understanding of the impact of different integration policies. Our study shows that reducing the amount of time migrants are required to wait before they become citizens would promote integration; this would have a positive impact on society as a whole, as well as helping migrants to unleash their full potential.”

Additional notes

In October 2015, Dr Hangartner was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize for his research on immigration and attitudes towards migrants.

Read his research papers on the effects of naturalisation on social integration and political integration.

Posted November 2015