Monday, 27 October 2014

UNHCR 2014 Statelessness Research Award interviews... Maria Jose Recalde Vela

"The vulnerability of stateless persons to all sorts of human rights violations made me want to somehow help make their situation a little bit better. What I find so heart-breaking about statelessness is precisely the impact this phenomenon has on the individual’s identity: being told you do not belong in the place you identify with can be devastating, as it can make one question who one really is." 

In this series of blog posts, we are 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 Ms. Maria Jose Recalde Vela whose thesis How can identity assert a claim to citizenship? In search of a safeguard against statelessness from a legal and socio-psychological perspective.  submitted in completion of the Liberal Arts Programme at Tilburg University (the Netherlands), was chosen by the Jury as the Best Research in the Graduate Category.

Could you summarise, in 2 or 3 sentences, what your research was about?
My research was about exploring how a person’s identity develops in relation to the place and groups a person is influenced by (such as the place one grows up in and the society one grows up around) and whether this identity can somehow be used as a safeguard against statelessness.

What first got you interested in the problem of statelessness?
I first became interested in the problem of statelessness after taking the course at Tilburg University taught by Dr. van Waas during my second year of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I had never heard of stateless before; until I took the course I never even though there were people in this planet without a nationality! Nationality is something that we take for granted, so it is very shocking to find out that there’s around 10 million people without a nationality. What got me so interested in the issue is that the impact statelessness has on the individual is very deep. Stateless persons are not only deprived of basic civil and political rights such as voting for example, but are also affected at an individual and personal level. I am not sure if research has been done on this, but I am sure that statelessness has a massive impact in the individual’s mental and emotional well-being. The vulnerability of stateless persons to all sorts of human rights violations made me want to somehow help make their situation a little bit better. What I find so heart-breaking about statelessness is precisely the impact this phenomenon has on the individual’s identity: being told you do not belong in the place you identify with can be devastating, as it can make one question who one really is.

Why did you choose this particular research topic?
I always took nationality for granted, but at the same time, I was always confused by it. What was always strange is that I always felt like I am not from one single place, but from every place I have lived in. in my short years, I have lived in a few countries (so far, 4), and every time I moved to a new place I developed an attachment to that place, and I developed a feeling of belonging to that place, even if in paper it was not that way and in paper I have one nationality. I started thinking about this and while I was reading Dr. van Waas’ book I came across a section which describes what the “genuine link” is. The genuine link is the social fact of attachment of an individual with a state, and the genuine link is the basis for nationality. The ICJ described nationality as “a legal bond having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence.” So in other words, nationality is a legal reflection of this social fact of attachment between individual and state. But state not as in government; state as in, country, homeland, nation-state, etc. A place, a society. Then I started thinking how we develop these social facts of attachment with the places we live in and how this attachment shapes our identities. I felt like my identity has been heavily shaped by every country I have lived in, and this influence the places have had on my identity have contributed to my attachment to these places. I am attached to a place, I feel like I belong there, I have a social fact of attachment to this place. And what is nationality? A reflection of this social fact of attachment. If a person like me has become attached to a place and feels like she belongs there only from having lived a few years there, there is no way any state can tell me that a person who has lived his/her entire life in the same country, many times in the same area, has no social fact of attachment to that country and does not belong there. Many, if not most, stateless persons live their entire lives in the same place for a great number of reasons. However, the challenge for this was that it is not easy to prove a social fact of attachment; it is not something tangible, like a birth certificate for example. A social fact of attachment can mean anything! I thought maybe identity can help solve this problem. However, identity can also be anything! Therefore, I chose to focus on 3 socio-psychological theories that helped me to explain how a person’s identity develops in relation to the place and the society a person grows up in. while doing research, I came across an interesting principle that was proposed by Manley O Hudson: jus connectionis. I had only heard about the jus soli (law of the soil), jus sanguinis (law of blood) and jus domicili (law of residence) for nationality attribution. Jus connectionis? Never heard of it. But it caught my attention. Jus connectionis takes into consideration a person’s connections and identity for determining nationality. Jus connectionis, however, does not have the same status as jus sanguinis, jus soli and jus domicili; it is a theory, a thought, a proposal, an idea. But I thought it was definitely worth looking into, particularly since it could contribute to my search for a safeguard against statelessness.

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 based my research 100% on existing sources; it was a literature review. Carrying out field research on this topic would be very helpful but very complicated due to language barriers and due to the fact that it would take a long time to carry out the interviews and process all the data. Therefore, I based it on all sorts of literature I was able to find. It was challenging to find the literature I needed for it, as you know, there is not much information out there on stateless persons. I was lucky to find some reports in which stateless persons described their feelings of belonging to the place where they had grown up their entire lives.

What was the greatest challenge you had to deal with in undertaking your research?
The greatest challenge was definitely finding literature, since there is not much information out there that can give us a clear view into the identities of stateless persons. One of the most difficult parts was reading and actually understanding the socio-psychological theories and being able to explain them in writing. In Liberal Arts and Sciences, I majored in law, so almost every course I took was a law course. Therefore, I was used to reading legal texts and understanding them. However, social sciences texts, particularly social psychology ones were very confusing for me! I took a few social sciences courses during my bachelor, but none on social psychology, so it was very challenging to read and understand the texts. It was also a lot of fun to get to explore an area that I found so interesting but I was very unfamiliar with.

Could you briefly summarise your main findings or conclusions – or what you think is the most important outcome of your research?
-Citizenship is the legal “confirmation” of a person’s belonging to a group; it cannot be determined simply by looking at a person (this is a rejection of ethnicity and race as the basis of citizenship). A “social fact of attachment” must be determined for citizenship to be properly attributed to an individual
-the social fact of attachment is not tangible; it is embedded in the individual’s identity, so it is important to see how this identity developed and what influenced it. The 3 theories of identity can help explain how identity develops in relation to place and group. Our identities are influenced by our surroundings and the people who surround us. It can be said that the development of our identity is influenced by the country we live in.
-the principles of jus soli and jus sanguinis, which are meant to prove membership through birth on the territory or through blood, are unable to prevent people from becoming stateless, due to strict application of these principles by some states. This strict application makes it easy to exclude people from the citizenry, even though many of these excluded persons have social facts of attachment with said state.
-the principle of jus connectionis which takes into account connections and attachment to a place fills this gap left by the jus soli and jus sanguinis principles. Therefore, the principle of jus connectionis, since it takes into account identity, could serve as a safeguard against statelessness for persons who are excluded from the citizenry since they have no legal claims to citizenship through birth or through blood but do have a claim through their social fact of attachment to their homeland.

Have you found it rewarding to research statelessness – why / why not?
I have found doing research on statelessness—and nationality—the most rewarding experience of my life. I was lucky to intern at the statelessness programme last semester and it was the best, and now I am writing my master thesis on nationality, which I absolutely love. While it focuses on nationality, the idea behind it is finding a new way to help stateless persons. Once you jump on the statelessness train, you won’t be getting off for a long time. There is still so much research to be done that you will never run out of ideas on new things to research on.

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?

Find a topic you find interesting, it will make the process (it’s a long and considerably exhausting process) very enjoyable. I really hope someday someone can go out into the field and carry out interviews to find out more about the identities of the stateless individuals interviewed and maybe use some of the theoretical background I presented in my thesis and use their field results and see what happens! It would be a very large project that would benefit from an interdisciplinary approach, but if it ever happens I will definitely read that paper! I think in terms of finding concrete solutions for statelessness there is a lot of research that can be done, particularly looking into how specific countries or regions can find concrete solutions for statelessness in their territories or in the region. Theory-wise, there is so much to do! I am fascinated by the theoretical issues. For example finding the “core” of nationality, or finding concrete reasons to why this concept, which was meant to include and bond people over their belonging to a place, actually has left gaps in the law and its implementation that have rendered millions stateless. One of the problems I had was that there is not much literature out there, so any contributions to the literature are always welcome, and from any discipline! I am not an expert but I feel like statelessness cannot be addressed only from only one discipline: it is such a complex issue that it needs contributions from various disciplines for a better understanding of it, and I think that once we understand an issue it is easier to find concrete long-lasting solutions to it.

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