Humans or Citizens? Comparing and explaining forced migrants' access to political rights in home and host countries





In the Origins of Totalitarianism, German-born, former refugee and naturalised American philosopher Hannah Arendt famously defined citizenship as ‘the right to have rights’. In her view, because they no longer belong to ‘any community whatsoever’, refugees find themselves stateless and therefore condemned to live in the ‘abstract nakedness of being human’. By exposing the tension between the universal rights of humans and the particular rights of citizens at the core of the refugee question, Arendt’s analysis resonates to this date. To be sure, refugee law has changed dramatically since her book was published in 1951, a few months before the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The emergence and consolidation of a global forced migration regime has profoundly transformed international and domestic legal practices over the past 70 years. But today, as in the past, the refugee condition results from the break of the political bond between a person and her state of citizenship. Even though countries of asylum may acknowledge her claim and offer some degree of protection, they neither replace nor fix the broken bond, at least not upon recognition. Instead, in most areas of the world, forcibly displaced persons have remained durably deprived of the political power of citizenship, in both home and host countries. Yet, the depth and strength of the deprivation varies substantially across geographical, political and historical contexts. In actuality, some refugees have been durably or even irredeemably treated as humans confined to a bare life, whereas others were gradually turned into citizens allowed to participate in political life.

Rooted in comparative political science and building on the two interdisciplinary sub-fields of forced migration and citizenship studies, our project aims to uncover how and why forced migrants are alternately included in or excluded from their political community of origin and / or of asylum. Conceptually, it understands refugees as transnational denizens; that is, individuals who, because they were forced out of their country of origin and sought asylum in another, have an a priori valid claim of membership and participation in at least two states that is only partially recognised. Neither full members nor complete strangers, their legal status and political rights are decisively shaped by the actions of and interactions between multiple actors involved in what Peter Gatrell has called the ‘refugeedom’, including states of origin, states of asylum, international organisations and refugees themselves. Our project thus distinguishes between two conceptually distinct yet empirically related paths to citizenship: towards the creation of a new political bond with the country of asylum (WP1), and the restoration of the past political bond with the country of origin (WP2).

The expected impact of our findings beyond science is threefold:  for practitioners, identifying good practices and facilitating their diffusion through two Policy Briefs and a final dissemination event; for policymakers, contributing to the ongoing debate on durable solutions to refugeehood; for the broader public, providing empirical evidence to the risk of durably relegating refugees and asylum seekers to the margins of citizenship.


Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, Grant Number 219766

Approved amount: CHF 666.832

Lead Investigator: Jean-Thomas Arrighi

Duration: April 2024 to March 2028