Maltese citizens living abroad who have visited Malta over the holidays, might have had a shock when they found out that being a Maltese citizen does not guarantee some of the rights enjoyed by residents. The distinction between citizenship and residency is often rather confusing.
Citizenship gives us legal status as Maltese. There should be no distinction between those living in Malta and those living overseas in this respect. But those living in Malta enjoy certain privileges not afforded to those not resident here. The identity card is a case in point.
The Identity Card Act 1976 requires that an applicant for an ID card must have “resided in Malta for not less than six months”.
It is not clear whether one has to reside uninterruptedly for this length of time, or whether one can accumulate these six months over a period of time, and if so, over what period.
So what are the benefits and privileges resulting from possessing an ID card over those of being a Maltese citizen?
One of the most common complaints made by visiting non-resident Maltese relates to local transport. Unless you show your ID card to the driver on the new bus system in Malta, you are charged the tourist rather than the residents’ rate.
There is also the case of travel on the Gozo ferry where rates are considerably cheaper for those carrying an ID card showing they have a Gozo residence.
Another example is the kartanzjan, a form of senior citizen’s card which is automatically granted to people holding a Maltese ID card upon reaching the age of 60. Currently there are around 100,000 people in this category who are entitled to certain benefits. There are other examples.
Such ‘discrimination’ would appear to be all the more galling when one sees foreign residents in Malta being issued with an ID card and enjoying benefits that are denied to Maltese citizens living overseas. It certainly underlines the fact that possessing an ID card is quite distinct from being a Maltese citizen carrying a Maltese passport.
One could argue that this is a clear case of discrimination against a class of EU citizens (which all Maltese citizens are, regardless of where they reside) that should be tackled at EU level. In this respect, in particular, one is surprised to learn that until recently Malta did not allow foreigners living in Malta (whether they hold a Maltese ID card or not) to vote for Maltese candidates in EU elections, even though several other EU states allowed this.
Maltese living abroad visiting Malta are often puzzled about the fact that their Maltese citizenship does not automatically translate to their being issued with an ID card.
Why cannot an ID card be issued in conjunction with every passport application?
Why are the ID card privileges (with the exception of voting at local and EU parliamentary elections in Malta) not extended to all people around the world who hold Maltese passports?
Whenever the ID card issue has been raised, such as during last year’s Convention of Maltese Living Abroad, the general feeling has been that one is opening a can of worms and the issue should be left alone. It is doubtful that any government would be willing to embrace the proposition that the ID card privileges (even if with the exception of voting rights) should be extended to all Maltese citizens, regardless of residence, bearing in mind the apparent magnitude of applications that would result.
No convincing reasons have been provided to justify the discrimination referred to.
The main argument against issuing the ID card to non-resident Maltese has been that it entitles its holder to vote at elections. However, this does not appear to be correct as resident foreigners have been issued with ID cards without being granted the right to vote at Maltese (and until recently EU) parliamentary elections.
By way of compromise, instead of extending the full set of privileges to non-resident Maltese citizens, it would be proper for the government to acknowledge the issue and address it by considering introducing some sort of identification, short of a full ID card, which non-resident Maltese citizens visiting Malta, particularly senior citizens and students, can benefit from having.
This could take the form of a ‘temporary ID card’ which allows senior citizens and students to travel on public transport at the same transport fares as local residents, and maybe enter cultural and historical sites in Malta at concession rates.
Such a solution would go a long way towards recognising the privileged status of holding Maltese citizenship regardless of residence, and would be most appreciated by visiting Maltese senior citizens and young students living abroad who visit our beloved Malta.
(Note: This article was published in The Sunday Times on 18 September 2011)