Tuesday, 6 December 2011

No Country, No Identity, No Rights?

Exhibition and Photography Workshop

Through the entire week of October 31 the exhibition “Nowhere People” by award-winning photographer Greg Constantine was displayed in the foyer of Dante-building of Tilburg University. The powerfully evocative and artistic black-and-white photos drew everyone’s attention. The special feature of the exhibition was the diversity of people who are stateless, from Bangladesh to Ukraine. It was also poignant to note that statelessness does not discriminate on age. The particular picture of a Nepalese man lying on the floor with a child in a hammock next to him showed that being stateless means that your children will be born stateless too. The great choice of black and white underlined the hopelessness and perpetuation of the issue of statelessness.

Greg Constantine has spent six years documenting the daily lives of stateless groups around the globe to produce the “Nowhere People” series. In a one-off workshop, Constantine discussed his approach to photography and to the people who are the subject of his pictures, including a guided tour of his exhibition through a PowerPoint presentation. The three-hour workshop was held on the 2nd of November.
Constantine opened the workshop by asking the participants to introduce themselves to get a good impression of the diversity of the audience. Immediately one could feel the intimate mood of the gathering, intensified by the occasional hoarse voice of Constantine, the small group of people, the twilight and the touching photos.

He started telling about the way he approached stateless people. Whenever a photographer wants to capture people’s lives, he must get to know the people first. Therefore he never brought the camera with him while visiting people the first couple of days. By having long conversations and winning their trust, he got to know the stateless people and their problems. Especially with stateless people trust is key, because they often take risks by talking with outsiders. More important is the fact that stateless people have been neglected for too long, and they are not willing to speak to anyone. When a project has resulted in a series of photographs the struggle of selling it to the audience begins. It is important, Constantine made sure, that you believe in your own project in order to present it to a audience without prior knowledge or interest in the subject.
Symposium The official launch of the Statelessness Programme took place on November 3. The symposiums aim was to create a unique opportunity to better understand the problem of statelessness and how it affects people, both around the world and in the Netherlands. At the symposium, the guest speakers each talked about their effort to shed light on the problem of statelessness.
The symposium began with a short movie in which 10 facts about statelessness emerged. After the movie Dr. Laura van Waas, senior researcher of the Statelessness Programme, made an opening speech. She spoke briefly about the subject, and presented the following guest speakers.
Greg Constantine, the aforementioned photographer, was the first one to speak. He has worked intensively for the last six years to produce the powerful “Nowhere People” series. Through photo essays he started telling the world about the bare life conditions of stateless people. The different stateless groups included the Rohingya of Burma, the Dalit of Nepal, the Bihari of Bangladesh, the Hill Tamils in Sri Lanka, the children of Sabah (Malaysia), the Nubians of Kenya, the ex-Soviets of Ukraine, and the stateless people of the Ivory Coast.  He also gave us a short glimpse of one of his new projects; the stateless people of the Dominican Republic.
Constantine spoke about the impact that the denial of citizenship has on stateless people everywhere. It can be a root cause of critical issues like forced migration, human trafficking and even armed conflict. Not only physical trouble is an every day reality, stateless people are also denied to get married or the right to reproduce, as is the case with the Rohingya in Myanmar. Constantine gave an impeccable first impression with his photo essays of statelessness around the world. He made it clear that groups of people are excluded from society by forces beyond their control. More importantly, he proved that these people need our attention to give them their rights back.
The second lecture was on the stateless people of Lebanon and Latvia given by Els Duran and Evelien Vehof. Els and Evelien are journalists who are writing about statelessness within their project “Citizens of Nowhere”. In Lebanon Els and Evelien were struck by the gender issues of statelessness. The newly wed couple they talked about were totally unaware about the fact that their children would be born stateless, because the woman could not pass on her nationality and the man was himself stateless. In Latvia they came across probably one the most interesting groups, “Russian Speakers”. During one of their bus tours their tour guide, Alexander, spoke about his pride on being stateless. He stated that being stateless was not a disadvantage in a corrupt state. It was refreshing to understand that with statelessness the hardship was overall the same, but stateless people have diverse opinions about their status as the circumstances of the state they live in differ.

The last lecture was given by the Head of Office of the UNHCR, Rene Bruin, and one of the researchers of the UNHCR on statelessness in the Netherlands, Karel Hendriks. Bruin started off with telling about some disturbing findings of the UNHCR while doing the research. One might not expect that statelessness is a big issue in the Netherlands, but the fact that a proper procedure to deal with stateless people has not been established indicates that statelessness has not been taken seriously yet. Another matter is the poor documentation of people who are not defined as Dutch nationals, foreign nationals or stateless people. The last point Bruin made was about the sometimes long-term or repeated detention of stateless people due to their lack of a regular immigration status. Hendriks gave an example of the effects of detention on stateless people by telling about a stateless person, John, living in the Netherlands. John is originally from Suriname, but has also spent a long time living abroad, including Holland. A problem occurred when both Suriname and the Netherlands were not sure anymore about how long John had been in each country and which nationality he was entitled to. For many he has been struggling living on the street in Holland, and eventually getting detained several times simply because Suriname and the Dutch state could not recognise him as a citizen but there was also no protection for him in the Netherlands as a stateless person. It is remarkable that a person can be denied a nationality due to a simple formality and live most of his life struggling to prove that he has an entitlement to a nationality.
After the lectures a discussion with the audience took place. The questions showed the frustration that was raised because of the issue. Especially the question of a lawyer on how long it would take before the Dutch government will solve this problem, illustrated the hopelessness of everyone faced with statelessness. The disappointing answer was: we can expect it take at least 5 years for a law to be introduced that would establish a statelessness procedure.

All in all, it is fair to say that at the end of the week the issue of statelessness has touched everyone who heard or saw something about it. A first attempt to reach people who are unfamiliar with these people who are forgotten has been successful, but this does not imply that our job is done. The Statelessness Programme is at its beginning on helping to understand, to research and to solve the issue of statelessness. In pursuit of these goals everyone is welcome to join, because statelessness is not simply an interesting legal subject, it prevents to live a life at its fullest. A person cannot be defined by any kind of document, but we live in a legal order where citizenship is of importance in order to practice most of our rights. With this in mind I would like to end with a citation of Hannah Arendt: “To be stripped of citizenship is to be stripped of worldliness; it is like returning to a wilderness as caveman or savages… they could live and die without leaving any trace.”

Moshgan Wahedi, Intern at the Statelessness Programme

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