Who gets to call a new land home?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2012, 12:00am


Citizens of a country enjoy the right to reside, work and receive an education in that country. In most cases, they have the right to vote and are entitled to social welfare, including pensions and public healthcare. However, citizens' rights depend on how much their country can afford to offer.

And, as the saying goes, nothing is for free. Citizens have to fulfil their responsibilities as members of the community. They must pay taxes to fund the development of infrastructure and support social welfare. They have to abide by the laws of their country.

In some countries, they must serve a term of compulsory military service.

In most cases, a person's citizenship is their nationality. If someone is an American citizen, their nationality is American.

But since Hong Kong is a special region not a country, Hong Kong does not offer immigrants a new nationality. Instead, they are granted permanent residency after living in the city for seven years.

A Hong Kong permanent resident can be from another country. They will be granted a Hong Kong identity card, and have the right to live in the city as a permanent resident.

In legal terms, permanent residency of Hong Kong is also called the 'right of abode'.

Recently, two heated debates have emerged in Hong Kong regarding the right of abode law.

The first one concerns whether foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong should have the right to become permanent residents.

The second one is about how the city's right of abode law puts Hong Kong's hospitals under pressure by encouraging mainland women to give birth here.

To determine who gets citizenship is a complicated matter. Let's take a look at the common criteria of how a citizenship is granted.

Jus soli

Jus soli means the right of soil in Latin. In some countries, the requirement to become a citizen is simply to be born in that country. America and Canada are two developed countries known for practising jus soli. However, jus soli is a fairly loose policy. A lot of countries want more before granting citizenship, because they have to protect themselves from a sudden flood of migrants.

Jus sanguinis

Jus sanguinis means the right of blood. Instead of being born in a country to acquire a citizenship, a child needs to have at least one, or sometimes both, parents holding citizenship. This policy is adopted by most countries. Citizenship rights extend to babies of citizens who are born in other countries. If parents are citizens, their children will be citizens, too.

Transnational marriage

If you are married to a person who holds a different citizenship, in most cases, you are allowed to apply for the citizenship held by your spouse. But countries do not award citizenship immediately.

Normally a person has to reside in their spouse's country as a permanent resident for a number of years. This period varies. For example, Canada demands a three-year residency, while it can take up to 10 years to become a citizen in Italy.

Also, because not every country allows dual-citizenship - one person having more than one nationality - the person with the new citizenship may have to give up their original one. For example, a Singaporean married to an American would have to renounce his or her citizenship to become an American.

Sometimes, regional conflicts intervene. In Israel, Palestinians married to Israelis can only get a temporary visa to stay in the country. It is very difficult for Palestinians to obtain permanent residency in Israel, let alone become citizens.

Other immigration schemes

Professional skills and talent

Some countries will offer citizenship to professionals or people who have specific skills that the country needs. Those skills are usually in high demand, but in low supply in the host country. These could range from professions such as medicine and engineering to trades such as hospitality, catering and construction.

Overseas relatives of citizens

Some countries will grant citizenship to the relatives of their citizens. The parents of first-generation citizens often still live in their country of origin. The new country may therefore permit them to become citizens so families can be reunited.


The United Nations can help refugees relocate to a new country and be granted a new citizenship. Refugees are defined as people whose lives are endangered due to war, or who are being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Controversies in Hong KongRight of abode law in Hong Kong

According to Article 24 of the Basic Law, Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong automatically become Hong Kong permanent residents. Non-Hong Kong born persons, both Chinese and other nationals, can apply for permanent residency after residing in Hong Kong under a valid visa for at least seven years. All their offspring will become Hong Kong permanent residents, too.

Domestic workers in Hong Kong

The case at the centre of the right-of-abode controversy is that of Evangeline Banao Vallejos. The Philippines national has worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper for more than 25 years. In 2011, the Court of First Instance ruled that she was eligible to apply for permanent residency. However, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in March. The government argues that visa regulations covering foreign domestic workers mean their time in the city does not comply with the 'ordinary stay' requirement as stated in the Basic Law. Vallejos is appealing.

Mainland mothers

Many mainland women come to Hong Kong to have their babies. This has resulted in overloaded private and public hospitals. Some critics say this situation is because the law entitles babies born in Hong Kong to permanent residency. Local politicians are now looking for possible ways to stop the influx - by reducing quotas for mainland women, by increasing hospital fees or by reinterpreting and changing the Basic Law.