Tuesday, 17 May 2011

More than just an intellectual brainteaser

There is no denying that statelessness makes for a fascinating intellectual puzzle. When I tell people about statelessness, a common response is surprise, or even consternation, that it is possible for someone to be neglected in such a fundamental way and left to live without any nationality. How does that happen? Why does that happen? What can be done? These are the usual questions generated upon learning of the existence of statelessness.

While the answers to these questions are relatively straight-forward (and will no doubt be touched upon in many of the blog posts to come), statelessness remains something of an intellectual brainteaser – even for those who have spent a good few years digging deeper into the mechanics of the phenomenon. Further study brings new questions to light. Why is human rights law concerned about statelessness, such that it establishes the right to a nationality, while simultaneously suggesting through the very system of rights as human rights, that nationality has lost its importance? If you appear to have a nationality on paper, but are never treated as a national by state authorities, are you stateless? Where a state is obliged, in accordance with its own international commitments, to confer nationality to a child who would otherwise be stateless, how does it expect to meet this obligation without putting in place a procedure to figure out whether the child in question would, indeed, otherwise be stateless?

But these and other theoretical ponderings will also have to wait their turn, for this post is about the other side of statelessness. Yes, statelessness is more than just an intellectual brainteaser: it’s also about people. It is this human side of statelessness that has truly captured hearts and led to some remarkable initiatives, by remarkable people. All over the world, grassroots organisations are working tirelessly to teach stateless people about their rights and to walk them through any available procedures that there might be to resolve their situation and acquire a nationality. On my first foray into the field to find out what was happening on the ground – a research trip to Thailand in 2006 – I met with numerous individuals and organisations whose impressive projects belie their shoestring budgets. The Mirror Foundation, for instance, was quietly fundraising through a range of cultural activities to help one stateless child at a time to pay for a DNA test that would allow them to prove their family ties with a parent or sibling who holds citizenship and confirm their own nationality on that basis. This is just one of dozens of examples around the world of a community that is empowering its members to help themselves.

Ever since that first exposure with an extraordinary project established by ordinary people, discovering other initiatives of this kind has been one of the most enjoyable parts of my work. The variety, creativity and sophistication of these initiatives is startling. Take the stunning and evocative work of photographer Greg Constantine, who has captured people’s experiences of statelessness in his Nowhere People series in a way that seamlessly combines art and documentary. His work and the way he does his work are an incredible source of inspiration, so keep your eyes peeled for an opportunity to see his exhibition. Then there are the energetic young journalists from Holland, Els & Evelien, who have made it their mission to travel to a selection of countries affected by statelessness and record personal histories so that we can all get to know this vulnerable and often voiceless group a bit better. Their Citizens of Nowhere project is about to kick off and can be followed through their blog. Returning to Thailand for one last example for now, there’s the incredible story of Joseph & Susan: two students from a US university who started out documenting statelessness in Thailand through photography and have since devoted their time to Higher Education as Humanitarian Aid through their initiative, The Thailand Project.

Statelessness then, is first and foremost about people... about the stateless as a vulnerable group who deserve our attention... about the stateless as individuals with a capacity to act and affect change... and about other people who have been inspired by the human story of statelessness to do remarkable work. So if you have just discovered the phenomenon of statelessness and have questions about the what, why and how, these intiatives will provide you with a unique and invaluable insight. The intellectual brainteasers can wait for another day.

Laura van Waas, Senior Researcher and Manager, Statelessness Programme

No comments:

Post a Comment