You are ushered into a tastefully decorated room. Gently. (As if you are so fragile you might break.) Seated in the room is a benevolent looking foreigner who stands up with a compassionate smile and greets you in a foreign language. You cannot understand the words, but the gesture is a funny mix of welcoming, awkward and sympathetic. The person who brought you – who you know, who speaks your language and who has tried to help you in the past – acts as interpreter. The foreigner is an important person doing some important research. By speaking to you and hearing your story the foreigner will be able to raise awareness about your issue. Even get the United Nations to listen. This won’t give you the 50 dollars you need to buy medicine for your son, but it will achieve something much greater… eventually… it is hoped.
You are asked – through the interpretation process – if you are willing to share your story, be filmed and have a video of yourself shown on television and online. It all seems alien to you. Does this mean you will be a celebrity of sorts? Or a target? You are not quite sure what the implications are of something being released into the wilderness of the internet. How long will it remain there? Can you ever have it taken down? But you do not ask. It feels rude, ungrateful, wrong. You nod and agree. You accept the cup of tea that the kind foreigner has just poured you. You would like another spoon of sugar, but do not ask for one.
The interview begins. You try to forget the camera, but it makes you nervous. The foreigner empathises, smiles, nods, and asks difficult questions. Questions you are not fully comfortable answering. Questions about personal experiences, personal emotions, personal fears. You are not always sure what the right answer is. At times you would rather not answer at all. But you do. After all, you have agreed. A lot of money has been spent to make this happen. It is for a good cause. Your cause. At times, the questions cross a line you did not know existed. But you push the line back and answer anyway. You have already agreed to do so. You don’t feel you have the right to be selective.
The foreigner thanks you for your time and sincerity. Says that you have a great story and inner strength, and that you are “very articulate” in a way which you cannot quite tell if it is genuine, patronising or just a stock line to all interviewees. The foreigner asks if you will be willing to speak at a conference to convince the world to act. You don’t quite know how to respond so you smile and nod.
You return home. You feel drained and uncertain. You think you have done a good thing, an important thing. But you don’t feel in control. You have given a part of yourself and its destiny is now out of your hands. You look into the mirror. You are staring at the human face of statelessness.
We are living the moment that future history may record as that in which ‘statelessness’ made the evolutionary jump from an ultra-niche, technical, geeky, legal issue to a truly global movement, mixing it up with the big players: women’s rights, development, climate change and LGBTI rights (to name but four). As things stand, statelessness is somewhere in-between. It is an increasingly relevant and important issue to a growing number of diverse players, on the cusp of entering the mainstream through the most ambitious plan yet, the upcoming launch of the UNHCR led campaign to end statelessness by 2024.
At this critical juncture, some introspection and evaluation is called for.
The success behind the transition from technical legal issue to something that resonates with various actors can largely be attributed to efforts made to convey the very real, devastating and completely avoidable human impact that statelessness has on individuals, families and entire communities. This has made statelessness increasingly relevant to those working in multiple disciplines including birth registration, child rights, education, women’s rights, healthcare, detention and of course, human rights at large. Research, portraying stateless people and their stories and delivering training played (and continues to play) a significant role in getting the message across.
Perhaps as a hallmark of the success of these efforts, we now very quickly have to take another leap into the unknown as we try to forge a truly global movement on statelessness. The recently concluded Global Forum on Statelessness demonstrated that this is not the wild fantasy of a few dreamers. It is actually possible. However, the success of this second transition depends on many things, including our ability as ‘statelessness professionals’ to transform our relationship with the stateless themselves. For long enough, the stateless have been research subjects, faces of campaigns and beneficiaries of projects. Moving forward, they must be included more holistically and as equals. They must find meaning, hope and inclusion within the movement. They must have leadership positions which allow them to shape the direction of the campaign and ensure that ultimately it benefits them.
This is not to say that the research and human impact stories have served their purpose. Nor is it to suggest that we haven’t got better at including the stateless more meaningfully. Far from either. Perhaps it is a gentle nudge against complacency, or something more, a call to push ourselves to think more creatively and inclusively, both in terms of how we develop our message and how we get it across.
The way we research statelessness
The scenario painted at the outset of this article is one that I have often experienced (from the other side). I have been the ‘benevolent foreigner’ on too many occasions. It is perhaps impossible to get such an interview right. The power imbalance inherent in such situations is so great that no amount of sensitivity or ethics will create a completely comfortable environment through which the ‘subject’ has agency to participate on equal terms. They will always feel pressurised to answer questions they don’t want to – questions that if transposed from that unique setting to any other social interaction - we would never dream of asking anyone. They will always lack control over the information they have shared and how it is used.
And so, the process of information gathering on statelessness - the means through which the issue gets substance (and a face) - must be constantly scrutinised by us. We will never perfect the art but we can get closer to the ideal. Doing so will strengthen research outputs and also enhance the ability of stateless persons who participate in research to contribute to the issue. Research can always be carried out in more equal, participatory and inclusive terms.
The way we package statelessness
The very word ‘statelessness’ communicates a sense of ‘lacking’. Persons who do not have a state. Possibly taking our cue from the word itself, the phrases we often use to capture the essence of statelessness are also articulations of something that has no place. ‘Nowhere’, ‘ghosts’, ‘without’, ‘anomaly’, ‘shadows’, ‘disowned’: the stateless are generally packaged in very negative and one-dimensional terms. The use of each term in isolation can be very effective, it can make people stop and listen. But collectively, after many years, they paint the stateless as perennial outsiders who do not belong, as pathetic and helpless creatures.
I’ve thought about this a lot. I feel that such terms were meant to serve as a critique of society (laws, policies, practices, institutions, structures and people); its failure to accommodate, include and protect those who have fallen out or have been pushed out of artificial constructs of nationality; and its corresponding exclusion, marginalisation and even criminalisation of such people. Instead, they are seen as being descriptive of the stateless. So the term ‘legal ghost’ is meant to critique a legal system which makes ‘ghosts’ of people. Instead, it has become yet another way in which the stateless are ‘othered’. In reality, there is nothing anomalous about stateless Mr X. But, the fact that he has been made stateless and is made to suffer for this, is an intolerable anomaly of society.
This too poses a challenge to us. To revisit how we package statelessness, so it is clear that we are not being descriptive of people in a negative and over-simplistic way, but rather, critical of systems that treat people so.
The way we work with the stateless
The more we work with stateless people on equal terms, the more they become an integral and leading part of the movement, the better we are likely to get at understanding and representing statelessness in all its complexity. This applies to all kinds of activities, from research, to interviewing stateless people and portraying their stories publicly, to providing them with services and ultimately, to ending statelessness.
At the recently concluded Global Forum on Statelessness, without any shed of doubt, in the midst of many very impressive sessions, the most impressive and impactful was the plenary session which featured four formerly stateless people. When each of them spoke, the conviction, courage, integrity and humour with which they had faced the absurdity and sheer injustice of the situations before them were conveyed better than I had ever heard the experience of statelessness articulated. They were inspirational to say the least and amply showed that from among those who are or have been stateless, are natural leaders who have much to offer to the movement.
The way we will work on the issue in the future
It is no accident that the word ‘Inclusion’ features prominently in the name of the new organisation that has been set up by Laura van Waas, Zahra Albarazi and myself. Some of the thoughts articulated above were discussed in detail by the three of us as in all earnestness, we plotted the establishment of a new global NGO to address statelessness. We were very keen to keep a focus on the concept of inclusion, for three reasons in particular:
1. We believe that through engaging in equal partnership with stateless people, our work will be given direction and meaning. Thus, we hope to include the stateless in all that we do. We equally hope that we are included by different stateless communities around the world, so we can be of help in their struggles for justice.
2. While statelessness is in many ways a legal problem, the resultant exclusion that stateless people face from society does not undo itself when nationality is granted or restored. Much more needs to be done to include stateless and formerly stateless people in society. To the extent that this happens, statelessness will be seen as a problem which affects society at large and not just the stateless. As Lara Chen of the Stateless Network of Japan said during a recent short interview with me:
“To include them, to recognise their personality rather than their ID card is much more important for them to feel secure and feel at home. So I want to empower more stateless people to have their self-confidence. I wish more people will accept them by their personality and not by their ID card.”
3. Finally, the experience of exclusion and disenfranchisement is not unique to statelessness. Many other groups face exclusion and are striving to be included on equal terms. There needs to be greater dialogue between those working on statelessness, and those working on behalf of other such groups. We have much to share with and learn from each other.
And so, we hope, through the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, to contribute to a growing global movement on statelessness that all of us are part of, and that has at its very centre, the stateless themselves.
You walk into a tastefully decorated room. It is full of friends, colleagues, familiar faces. They light up when they see you, ask if you had a good journey, ask after your family and your son’s health in particular. You feel comfortable, in your rightful place, contributing on equal terms to an important issue. Your issue. The meeting begins. The task, to formulate a strategy to end statelessness. You are the human face of statelessness. But you are more. You are the movement.
* I would like to thank Zahra Albarazi for commenting on a draft of this article.