What is a Citizen?

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A citizen is someone who has full rights and responsibilities as a member of a nation or political community. Citizenship can be granted by birth, the nationality of parents or acquired through a process called naturalisation. Citizenship is a key component of democracy. It guarantees the people that their laws are fair and that their interests will be represented equally by their government. It also provides a framework for maintaining order and resolving disputes in society.

There is a growing debate about the nature of citizenship, particularly in Britain. One of the strands is about the relation between immigration, citizenship and notions of Britishness. This debate has become increasingly political and polarised.

Generally, the term citizen is used in a formal sense to refer to a person who has been granted the legal status of a state’s citizens by birth or ‘naturalisation’ (in the case of wealthy liberal democratic states). Citizenship confers rights to live, work and study in that country and it is important for migrants seeking a life in another state because it entitles them to use the courts, public services and vote. It is a condition of being treated as equal to other citizens, and therefore, in practice, it provides a guarantee of equality and safety in the society they are living in.

However, the term is also often used in a more vague and flexible sense to refer to anyone who lives in a country. This usage is common in countries that have a large immigrant population, and it has been criticized for contributing to an increased level of distrust between citizens and the state.

The word citizen derives from the Latin civitas, meaning ‘people of the city’. Its first recorded appearance was in the 1300s, and its meaning has changed over time. The most important change has been to reflect the changing roles of cities in society, from the centre of trade and commerce to centres of education, culture and religion. During this time, the concept of civic life has also developed. In general, a citizen is a person who has been brought up in a civilized way, and who is expected to obey the law and contribute to the welfare of society.

In recent years, there has been a shift in the way in which the UK defines citizenship and belonging. This has partly been driven by concern about the relationship between migration and ‘cohesion’, with calls for English language acquisition and an oath of national allegiance as part of the requirements to obtain settlement and citizenship. This policy shift has weakened the link between settlement and citizenship, and it is possible that it could even make integration more difficult. In addition, the introduction of the ‘probationary citizenship’ status in 2009 breaks the traditional link between length of residence and settlement rights and may mean that people who have been in the country for longer are less likely to gain formal British citizenship.