Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Statelessness as a utopia

My own wish is to be a citizen of the world, to be a fellow-citizen to all men – a pilgrim, better still.’
Desiderius Erasmus, letter to Huldrych Zwingli, 1522.

Statelessness is a problem. All of us, academics, practitioners, activists, and even artists, who work with stateless persons, are sharply aware of the harsh reality of statelessness. Statelessness means instability, poverty, discrimination and despair. We work with the ‘problem’ of statelessness, because the human suffering takes priority over anything else.

But for me, statelessness is more than just a problem. There is something about the idea (and not the reality!) of statelessness that inspires me, that is ultimately romantic, and completely unrealistic. It is something vaguely communist, and maybe even anarchist. It is an idea of an individual who is beyond the state, who does not need the state. A stateless individual is beyond nationalism, wars and borders, not needing to belong anywhere and therefore welcome everywhere. Do you recognise this idea?

The birthday wishes from the Statelessness Programme Campaign put me in a dreamy mood. They addressed important issues – I can relate to all of them, and I wish all these wishes come true. Most of these wishes were policy objectives, lobbying plans and calls for activism. Many of them made me think: ‘Yes, I can really do something about this! If we join hands with all these dedicated people, we can make this wish come true!’. But there was one specific wish which I thought was a wish in the true sense of the word – a wish which cannot be realised within the practical limits of the world, and where you need involvement of some heavy magic:

‘I wish that statelessness soon only means there are no more states’ (a wish from Stichting STIL in Utrecht)

This is the wish I would make if I met a little fairy with a magic wand, or got hold of a Aladdin’s Lamp. It is my dream of a stateless utopia.

I wish sometimes that all people were stateless, and happy in their statelessness. I wish we didn’t need states – neither for practical purposes, nor for psychological reasons. I wish the world could be organised without borders, and individuals had something better to base their confidence on than their national identity. I don’t know how this can ever be true, or whether all my fellow human beings would agree to that, but I can dream, can’t I?

I wonder sometimes whether this image of a stateless utopia actually motivates me to help stateless persons. It is so far away from the reality of my every day working routine. The primary motivation is probably compassion to fellow human beings in great need of legal advice, but there are many categories of individuals who are in difficult legal situations, such as the refugees, the homeless, the ‘illegals’ and so on. There is also, of course, pure intellectual curiosity towards the legal complexities around the phenomenon of statelessness, but English tort law is not less complex, nor is the issue of animal rights. When I think of what makes statelessness so special for me that I am prepared to dedicate four years of my life to study it in a PhD project, and spend my free time giving legal advice to stateless persons, I come back to this romantic, impossible and nothing-to-do-with-reality image. While in my perfect world statelessness means the lack of a state in the life of an individual, I see how in reality statelessness (ironically!) leads to extreme dependence of individuals on states, and I want to do something about it. Even though I will never witness a stateless utopia, I do want to make the life of stateless persons a little less ‘state-full’, so that it does not revolve so much around papers, stamps, and moods of civil servants. I want stateless persons to be more independent, and more empowered in their relations with states.

Even though my dream is nothing but a dream, it clearly shapes the way I see my research. I don’t want to eliminate the problem of statelessness. Instead, I want statelessness to no longer be a problem. I am more interested in researching the issue of protecting stateless persons, rather than eliminating statelessness.

I would of course do anything within my power to help a stateless person to acquire the citizenship of some state, and cease to be stateless, since (alas!) it is often the best way to secure their access to basic rights. But while I would be doing that, I would hope that one day there would be no need for citizenship.

Katja Swider, Research Advice Service Coordinator, Statelessness Programme

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