In this series of blog posts, we will be asking the students honoured in this year's UNHCR Award for Statelessness Research about their experiences studying the phenomenon on statelessness and their research findings. Third in the series is Dr Lindsey Kingston, whose doctoral thesis entitled "Legal Invisibility: Statelessness and Issue (Non) Emergence", which earned Kingston her PhD in social science from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (United States) in 2010, received a special mention from the jury.
Statelessness has serious human rights consequences, yet it receives little attention from the international community. My doctoral dissertation at Syracuse University used the problem of statelessness to better understand the process of issue emergence, or the step in the process of mobilization when a pre-existing grievance is transformed from a problem into a human rights issue.
2. What first got you interested in the problem of statelessness?
I first “discovered” the problem of statelessness on a research trip to Thailand in 2005. I was a graduate student at American University, and I had travelled to Thailand to learn about human trafficking. I soon realized that this issue was complicated by statelessness among various hill tribes, and that lack of legal nationality had serious consequences for minority groups.
3. Why did you choose this particular research topic?
After returning from Thailand, I had a very difficult time finding any information about statelessness – even from refugee agencies, which were often completely unaware of this problem. When I began my doctoral studies at Syracuse University, I started engaging with literature on social movements and transnational activism to better understand why such a terrible human rights issue wasn’t getting international attention. I found more questions than answers, so I decided to focus my dissertation research on the process of issue emergence within the human rights regime.
4. Could you briefly describe how you went about your research? E.g. did you base it on existing sources – and were they easy to find? Did you do fieldwork or interviews – and what was that like?
I conducted qualitative interviews with decision-makers at leading human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). I knew it would be difficult to gain access to my interview respondents, since they are incredibly busy people, and several professors warned me to have a “Plan B” in case I couldn’t collect the data. I was surprised (and gratified) to learn that these decision-makers were deeply interested in the questions I was asking, however, and we had some fascinating discussions. I was sure to share my research findings with all of my participants, and hopefully that information will help them in their own work.
5. What was the greatest challenge you had to deal with in undertaking your research?
My greatest challenge was that I was studying something that had not happened (at least, not yet): The issue emergence of statelessness on the international human rights agenda. Many of the NGO decision-makers I interviewed were not aware of the problem, or had not considered this issue within their organization. That forced me to broaden my interview protocol to focus on issue emergence in general, and then narrow that discussion to statelessness when possible.
6. Could you briefly summarise your main findings or conclusions – or what you think is the most important outcome of your research?
Interview data revealed four characteristic categories that play roles in issue emergence: strategic, environmental, issue, and organizational. Some of these characteristics figure prominently in existing literature, while others do not. Looking specifically at statelessness, the issue faces a number of key challenges for advocates – but it also enjoys a number of strengths that make mobilization possible. The most important outcome of this research is providing recommendations for future advocacy so that this critical issue receives the attention it deserves.
7. Have you found it rewarding to research statelessness – why / why not?
Certainly! It is exciting to see new attention to this issue, and I believe that researchers in this field have the ability to enact real change. Statelessness still hasn’t emerged in mainstream ways, but it’s getting there – and recent attention by the UNHCR and various NGOs is incredibly promising. The research community focused on statelessness is small but growing, and it’s composed of a dedicated and supportive group of people. I’m very grateful that these people are out there, and that they are willing to talk about this issue and brainstorm ways to advance this research agenda.
8. What tips would you give to students who are getting involved in statelessness research to help them? E.g. are there particular questions you think they should be looking at or methodological issues they should consider?
Clearly there’s still a real lack of solid data for understanding the scope of this problem and its impacts. Field work is vital, particularly so that we can draw direct links between lack of legal nationality and other human rights violations/threats.