18 January 2016

Europe’s migration crisis shows little sign of abating, with over 50,000 refugees reaching Germany in the first couple of weeks of this year alone. Meanwhile, the tone of the debate across Europe has changed dramatically in the wake of the Cologne sex attacks. In the UK, both Leave campaigns have in recent days attempted to link the attacks to the EU debate by claiming that the UK is at risk of similar attacks on the grounds that the perpetrators will acquire EU citizenship and be free to come to the UK under free movement rules – UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said this could take place within three years.

Long-term residency is not enough to secure free movement rights

If refugees end up staying in Europe permanently they can acquire long-term resident status – subject to meeting certain conditions – as per the 2003 EU Directive on the status of non-EU nationals who are long-term residents. This gives them the same rights as that of EU member state’s nationals in certain areas, although it does not bestow an absolute right to free movement on par with EU nationals.

In any event, the UK, along with Ireland and Denmark, are exempt from this directive. This means that the UK does not have to allow non-EU nationals who are long-term residents of other member state into the UK if it does not want to. If it does allow them entry to the UK it is on the same basis as other non-EU nationals, i.e. meeting any relevant skills and income criteria. Therefore, the UK already has additional controls over immigration policy compared to other EU member states.

Migrants can however obtain full EU citizenship – how does this work?

It is true that if migrants or refugees were to obtain full citizenship of another EU member state they will then be able to exercise full EU free movement rights. EU citizenship can only be obtained via naturalisation, i.e. by obtaining the citizenship of a member state. This process varies from country to country, with each having its own conditions and criteria that need to be satisfied. Below is a summary of the conditions for acquiring the citizenship of the five EU member states that have experienced the highest influx of refugees/migrants:

Germany (288,800 asylum applications Jan-Sept 2015)
Acquiring German citizenship via naturalisation is conditional on eight years of legal residence, although this is shorter for spouses of German nationals. It also requires oral and written German language skills, a clean criminal record and a commitment to respecting the German constitution. In general, those applying for naturalisation must also give up their foreign nationality.

Hungary (175,960 asylum applications Jan-Sept 2015)
Acquiring Hungarian citizenship is conditional on having continuously lived in Hungary on the basis of permanent residence for three years, a clean criminal record, being financially self-sufficient, not posing a threat to the country’s public and national security, and passing an examination in basic constitutional studies in the Hungarian language. It should also be noted that Hungary has quite a high rejection rate for asylum applications.

Sweden (73,065 asylum applications Jan-Sept 2015)
Acquiring Swedish citizenship usually requires five years of legal residence in normal circumstances, although this drops to four years for refugees or stateless persons, and three years for people married to Swedish nationals.

Italy (59,165 asylum applications Jan-Sept 2015)
Acquiring Italian citizenship for non-EU nationals usually requires ten years of legal residence although this drops to five years for refugees or stateless persons.

France (50,840 asylum applications Jan-Sept 2015)
Acquiring French citizenship requires five years’ continuous residence and being able to demonstrate integration into French culture and society, providing evidence of a clean criminal record and of an employment history.

This means that not only do refugees/migrants have to live in another EU member state for a defined period of time – up to eight years in the case of Germany – they also have to be able to demonstrate a certain level of social and economic integration (typically being able to speak the language). This level of integration is likely to act as a brake on people’s willingness to subsequently move to another EU country, even if they acquire the right to do so.

In addition, as demonstrated above, many member states, including Germany explicitly state that a clean criminal record is also a precondition for acquiring citizenship. Finally, long-term residency comes with virtually all the same domestic benefits as full citizenship (in terms of access to jobs, social security and public services) which will further restrict the incentive for full naturalisation, as will the prospect of potentially having to give up their original citizenship which people may have an emotional or practical attachment to.

Will all refugees even be eligible for naturalisation?

As noted above, in most countries acquiring citizenship is dependent on permanent or formal residence, yet due to the high influx, Germany and Sweden are now only issuing temporary residence permits to new arrivals. In Germany, this runs up to three years after which “the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees examines whether there are grounds for a possible withdrawal of the status (e.g. a change of the political situation in the country of origin).” Only if no such reasons are identified can the temporary residence permit be converted into a permanent one.

Likewise in Sweden, the naturalisation rules depend on long-term residence or formal refugee status: “As a rule you must have been resident in Sweden for a continuous period of five years… Whether you are allowed to count all your time in Sweden as a period of habitual residence depends on why you settled here and what permit you have had during your time here.”


We simply do not know how how many of the many thousands of migrants and refugees who have entered Europe will end up staying permanently, and in turn how many of them will opt for naturalisation, but for all the reasons set out above, it is highly unlikely that this will be anywhere near as many as some have suggested. In addition, there is nothing inevitable or automatic about acquiring EU citizenship and the process includes several checks to filter out people who may potentially pose a security threat, including the need to have a clean criminal record. Of course there is always an element of risk involved when it comes to migration, but the spectre of thousands of potential sex offenders descending on Britain is far-fetched and smacks of desperation, particularly on the part of those who had pledged to make the positive economic-based case for Brexit.