“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Risks of ‘Covidisation’ in Statelessness Work?

25 June 2020 | Deirdre Brennan & Thomas McGee, PhD Researchers, Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness

What is the potential impact of world attention turning to the COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-political consequences, on statelessness research? The term ‘Covidisation’ has been coined by Dr. Madhukar Pai for the reorientation of research in this manner. By examining how COVID-19 may impact on funding, the representation of stateless people and awareness-raising, this blog offers a reflective analysis of this very sudden change in our working landscape, and coincides with the recent launch of 'The Critical Statelessness Studies Project’ by the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness. The project interrogates dominant narratives and approaches in the contemporary study of statelessness.

‘Covidisation’ of the Statelessness Agenda

Without question, many stateless people have been impacted by the outbreak of COVID-19, from facing an immediate loss of income to experiencing barriers to healthcare, as demonstrated by an ENS-supported position paper reflecting the views of activists and community representatives from across Europe. The paper also highlights the value of local, frontline organisations both in terms of their ability to respond immediately to crises and to understand the full impact on people’s lives. In considering the rapid changes to our working landscape in the statelessness sector, the question posed by this blog is how to ensure that a reactive focus on COVID-19 does not undermine or derail all other essential work and research on statelessness. When research is carried out to understand the relationship between COVID-19 and statelessness, we need to examine how to do so in a way that is rigorous, meaningful, and constructive.

The director of McGill’s International Tuberculosis Centre, Dr. Madhukar Pai, became cognisant of the recent flood of COVID-19 related research opportunities and outputs across academic disciplines. Noting how every major university and funding agency had suddenly launched special calls for grants on COVID-19, Dr. Pai wrote a cautionary article warning of the potential risk this trend poses to undermining other areas of research. Inspired by his arguments, this blog explores how Dr. Pai’s warning applies to the field of statelessness work and research, particularly in the areas of funding, focus and representation.

New Funding Bias and the Bandwagon Effect

Special COVID-19-related funding opportunities are cropping up both in academic funding calls and in NGO programme grants. As Dr. Pai notes, one only has to do a Google search on ‘COVID-19 funding opportunities’ to see the extent of this trend. The more funding becomes ‘Covidised’, the more pressing the question: will it be a prerequisite that ‘target groups’ have been impacted by COVID-19, in order for a project to be eligible for funds? If so, what about people living in areas less impacted by the pandemic? How might the new focus on COVID-19 and short-term responses undermine, for example, the long-term issues stateless people have always faced, such as access to education? Whilst calls to ensure that stateless people are not left behind during COVID-19 are needed, ironically the needs of those with vulnerabilities not directly exacerbated by the pandemic, or that cannot be easily linked to COVID-19, may be obscured within the current statelessness advocacy agenda.

There has rightly been a rush to respond to the new situation posed by the pandemic within the statelessness sector, and to understand how it is impacting stateless peoples’ lives. But how, in the context of reactive responses to funding calls, can we best safeguard attention towards on-going and necessary campaigns against statelessness at international, regional and national levels?

Similarly, the topical nature of the pandemic has resulted in a proliferation of online conference panels and journal special issues based on the model of ‘COVID-19 and [insert professional specialisation here]’. This new ‘topical’ bias risks diverting attention away from non-COVID-19 issues and is particularly problematic for longer-term advocacy movements on statelessness. The presence of discriminatory laws, and practices of arbitrary deprivation of nationality demand the same level of mobilisation before, during and after a pandemic. We must, for example, continue to advocate for the eradication of gender discriminatory nationality laws. But in a world distracted by COVID-19, and with governments anyway typically disregarding pressures for law reform in a pre-‘Covidised’ landscape, reaching this goal is an increasingly troubling prospect.

Representation of Stateless People in the Shadow of COVID-19

Another unintended fallout from the ‘Covidisation’ of statelessness work is the risk of essentialising the vulnerability caused by statelessness, and thus extrapolating the same impact of COVID-19 on all stateless people, as a unified group. While fears of an outbreak are well-founded, overstating a group’s vulnerability to the virus may risk stateless individuals being negatively associated with contagion and the spread of the pandemic. Such a distortion can be indirectly propagated by reports on the possibility of the virus ‘rac[ing] through camps’ housing stateless Rohingya in Bangladesh. This may have long-term repercussions on how people are perceived and treated within their communities. The mistreatment of refugees in Calais has shown exactly that. Furthermore, caution is needed when referring to government positions as ‘citizen first’ policies. The risk lies in naturalising such typically right-wing nationalist, and exclusionary, rhetoric within the public consciousness, and thus inadvertently reifying the concept. While arguably effective for advocacy, the implication that stateless people fall last in the hierarchy of inclusion, belonging, and COVID-19 global responses could risk inadvertently further stigmatising and marginalising stateless people.  

Perhaps, instead of arguing that stateless individuals face unparalleled vulnerability in the face of COVID-19, it might be more helpful to build linked-up responses that emphasise alliances and shared experiences with other affected individuals and groups, such as refugees and migrants. In all cases, research and advocacy on statelessness can best serve those affected by the issue when it is evidence-based, sets its own agenda, avoids generalisations, and takes its lead from stateless people themselves.

In the meantime, researchers should beware of throwing all their eggs into one research basket.

Photo: dmbosstone (flickr - Creative Commons)

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