Statelessness Q&A: Chronicling the pain of the world's stateless

Award-wining photographer Greg Constantine tells how meeting North Korean refugees in 2005 turned into a project that has consumed six years of his life.

American photographer Greg Constantine at an exhibition of his work in Nairobi.   ©  and courtesy of J. Cikaluk

BANGKOK, Thailand, September 20 (UNHCR) - Documenting some of the world's estimated 12 million stateless people has turned into a passion for award-winning American photographer Greg Constantine, now based in the Thai capital, Bangkok. His exhibit "Nowhere People," chronicling the lives of the stateless in eight countries, is on display till the end of this month at UN headquarters in New York. It will move to the BBVA Bank exhibition halI in Madrid, Spain from mid-October to early November, and then hang at the Royal Albert Hall in London, United Kingdom from mid-November to early December. Constantine talked recently with UNHCR's spokesperson for Asia, Kitty McKinsey, in Bangkok about his work. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about "Nowhere People"

It's a small slice of the larger project. It's a calling card to introduce different audiences to statelessness. I find that the moment people find out about the issue of statelessness and the denial of citizenship, they are completely fascinated - and appalled.

In a world where everyone has a digital camera, why do you still shoot in film, and in black-and-white?

I love the way film looks. The [Leica and Nikon] cameras that I use are very small, they are not intimidating. They allow me to be agile. They allow me to work in really low-light conditions. I see things in black and white. Colours for me can be very distracting. The subject matter I am documenting, I don't want there to be distraction. I want people to be able to look straight into the subject matter.

What has your cooperation been with UNHCR on this project?

Even though Nowhere People is my project, my cooperation with UNHCR has been invaluable. UNHCR has supported me to go on various missions over the last three years; to Kenya, Ukraine and Ivory Coast, three geographic areas with very distinct cases of statelessness that were vital to my project. UNHCR uses the work I have been able to do to add a different dimension to the discussions they are having about statelessness.

What drew you to stateless people or the issue of statelessness?

When I lived in Tokyo [in 2005], one of the first stories I worked on as a photographer was North Korean refugees. Most of the North Korean refugees I met in South-east Asia were women giving birth to children in China. The children were not North Korean citizens, they were not considered Chinese citizens, and until they actually set foot on South Korean soil, they would not be considered citizens of South Korea either, so really these kids were stateless. This sparked my interest in statelessness.

For the billions of people on this planet who have citizenship, an ID card, a passport, can you describe the pain stateless people feel?

Statelessness is a condition. The biggest pain is really not being recognized by a place you truly believe you belong to, whether it's not being recognized by your neighbour, by the state, or by the authorities. Add onto that this sense of overwhelming paralysis that stateless people have because so much of their condition is based on factors that are totally out of their control.

Talk a little bit about some of the things people around the world cannot do simply because they are not citizens of any country.

Go to school. Open a bank account. Travel. Have a passport. Have an ID card. Have a birth certificate. Have a marriage certificate. Have a death certificate. Be able to walk into a government office. Be able to run for public office. Be able to vote. Be able to receive humanitarian assistance in some cases. Be able to prove to an officer at a checkpoint that you are who you are. Being able to own land, being able to farm that land, being able to develop that land. Those are just a few of the things.

Do the individuals whose stories you tell feel you are their advocate?

No, I make it pretty clear I am not their advocate. That is not my role; that is the role of UNHCR and others, and I hope I can help their advocacy. However, when I photograph stateless people, I do let them know I feel it's my responsibility to make sure their story gets to as many audiences as possible. I do want the work to be seen by people who are in a position to actually create change for these people.

What kind of change would you like to see?

Statelessness is not [solved by] the change of a law or a constitution. It's not simply saying, "These people were stateless for 35 years and now because of a few sentences drawn in a constitution, they're not stateless." That is very important, but what I've seen on the ground is that stateless people have been reduced to such a level that they are so far behind other people competitively, economically, educationally, politically, it is not just a change in the law they need, but development.

Do you see any bright spots in solving or preventing statelessness?

One of the bright spots is simply that [many] people legally are no longer stateless; that is the starting point for everything. Look at the [Urdu-speaking] Bihari - stateless for 35 years and, at the end of 2008, they are finally recognized as citizens of Bangladesh. At the same time, people need to realize the work is not done. For people in the Urdu-speaking community in Bangladesh to truly feel they are part of this country they were born in and belong in, a change is needed in the way they are viewed by Bangladeshis. There are bright spots, but there are [also] communities where you see very little hope for the future.

What's ahead for you as a photographer?

There's going to be a series of books [on statelessness] coming out over the next 14 months. "Kenya's Nubians: Then and Now" is coming out in October, supported by UNHCR and the Open Society Institute. The intention of the four books is not so much to chronicle my work. They're really designed to let these people tell their stories and let my photos weave in and out of their testimonies from the last five and half years.

  • Prior to the resolution of the statelessness situation, the husband of this 20-year-old Bihari woman left her to marry a local in the hope of obtaining Bangladeshi citizenship. The girl is going blind and has no family to help support her and her baby. She makes paper bags for money.
    Prior to the resolution of the statelessness situation, the husband of this 20-year-old Bihari woman left her to marry a local in the hope of obtaining Bangladeshi citizenship. The girl is going blind and has no family to help support her and her baby. She makes paper bags for money. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • An ailing 75-year-old Urdu-speaking man sits alone in his room in Pat Godam Camp in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. He has no family left and does not have the resources to obtain health care.
    An ailing 75-year-old Urdu-speaking man sits alone in his room in Pat Godam Camp in Mymensingh, Bangladesh. He has no family left and does not have the resources to obtain health care. © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • Overcrowding plagues many Bihari settlements in Bangladesh. Living conditions are cramped and pose safety and health problems. Families of as many as 15 members live in rooms of less than 10 square metres. This family of seven work in their newspaper-covered room in Kurmi Tola Camp in the capital, Dhaka.
    Overcrowding plagues many Bihari settlements in Bangladesh. Living conditions are cramped and pose safety and health problems. Families of as many as 15 members live in rooms of less than 10 square metres. This family of seven work in their newspaper-covered room in Kurmi Tola Camp in the capital, Dhaka.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Camps and settlements where Biharis live have seen little maintenance in 35 years and lack water and sanitation. Some 4,000 people live in Kurmi Tola Camp in Dhaka. The camp is littered with garbage and raw sewage.
    Camps and settlements where Biharis live have seen little maintenance in 35 years and lack water and sanitation. Some 4,000 people live in Kurmi Tola Camp in Dhaka. The camp is littered with garbage and raw sewage.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Blind in one eye after being struck by a foreman while engaged in forced labour, this Rohingya man fled from Myanmar in the mid-1990s. He is one of an estimated 200,000 refugees living in southern Bangladesh. Most stateless people are not refugees, but those who are must be treated in accordance with international law.
    Blind in one eye after being struck by a foreman while engaged in forced labour, this Rohingya man fled from Myanmar in the mid-1990s. He is one of an estimated 200,000 refugees living in southern Bangladesh. Most stateless people are not refugees, but those who are must be treated in accordance with international law.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Thousands of the Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have not been registered and have received little assistance. A woman sits on the side of the road with her grandchild at the old Tal Camp near Teknaf. The government has since relocated the camp residents to a safer and less congested area.
    Thousands of the Muslim Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh have not been registered and have received little assistance. A woman sits on the side of the road with her grandchild at the old Tal Camp near Teknaf. The government has since relocated the camp residents to a safer and less congested area.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A slum 40 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu is filled with stateless youngsters. Children who possess the right documents are able to attend private schools and some public primary schools. Those who don't are shut out of most public programmes.
    A slum 40 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu is filled with stateless youngsters. Children who possess the right documents are able to attend private schools and some public primary schools. Those who don't are shut out of most public programmes.  © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • An estimated 30,000 children of Filipino and Indonesian descent in Malaysia's Sabah state are stateless or at risk of statelessness. They have little access to social services or to the school system. As a result, many children begin work at an early age in places such as the fish market in the capital, Kota Kinabalu.
    An estimated 30,000 children of Filipino and Indonesian descent in Malaysia's Sabah state are stateless or at risk of statelessness. They have little access to social services or to the school system. As a result, many children begin work at an early age in places such as the fish market in the capital, Kota Kinabalu. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A Dalit man and his grandson rest. The man's family has lived in the Terai in southern Nepal for over five generations, but he still lacks citizenship. While this was extended to millions of people in the Terai in 2007, an unknown number, including Muslims, indigenous people and Dalits, are still excluded from Nepalese citizenship and the rights and opportunities this brings.
    A Dalit man and his grandson rest. The man's family has lived in the Terai in southern Nepal for over five generations, but he still lacks citizenship. While this was extended to millions of people in the Terai in 2007, an unknown number, including Muslims, indigenous people and Dalits, are still excluded from Nepalese citizenship and the rights and opportunities this brings.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Dalits who are not hired to farm the land often end up as labourers earning the equivalent of less than US$1 a day. In this image, two of them shovel gravel and rocks from the dried bed of the Khuti River.
    Dalits who are not hired to farm the land often end up as labourers earning the equivalent of less than US$1 a day. In this image, two of them shovel gravel and rocks from the dried bed of the Khuti River.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A new bride (middle) and her friends take a ceremonial trip from her home to the bridegroom's house, where they will both live. Though they consider themselves to be people of Nepal, many Dalits have little hope that they will ever be recognized as citizens.
    A new bride (middle) and her friends take a ceremonial trip from her home to the bridegroom's house, where they will both live. Though they consider themselves to be people of Nepal, many Dalits have little hope that they will ever be recognized as citizens. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • In January 1999, the Galjeel were given three days to leave their land. They were then forced to trek to an isolated location in a remote forest. The Galjeel finally settled near an abandoned field that was part of a failed government irrigation programme.
    In January 1999, the Galjeel were given three days to leave their land. They were then forced to trek to an isolated location in a remote forest. The Galjeel finally settled near an abandoned field that was part of a failed government irrigation programme. © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • International aid agencies began building a new school for the Galjeel children but
construction was halted in 2005. A small group of Galjeel children play in the abandoned facility. Most children in the community do not go to school; those who do must walk several miles and are often harassed by local tribes.
    International aid agencies began building a new school for the Galjeel children but construction was halted in 2005. A small group of Galjeel children play in the abandoned facility. Most children in the community do not go to school; those who do must walk several miles and are often harassed by local tribes. © 
  • A Nubian woman in Kenya holds a photograph of her grandfather as an officer in the King's African Rifles. He served with the British Army in World War II and held a British Colonial passport. Nubians conscripted by the British were resettled in modern-day Nairobi with promises of land title. But since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restrictions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship.
    A Nubian woman in Kenya holds a photograph of her grandfather as an officer in the King's African Rifles. He served with the British Army in World War II and held a British Colonial passport. Nubians conscripted by the British were resettled in modern-day Nairobi with promises of land title. But since independence, Kenyan Nubians have had difficulty getting access to ID cards, employment and higher education and have been limited in their travel. In recent years, a more flexible approach by the authorities has helped ease some of these restrictions and most adult Nubians have been confirmed as Kenyan citizens, but children still face problems in acquiring Kenyan citizenship. © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • Having lived in Kenya for over 100 years, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been denied recognition. Up until the most recent census conducted in mid-2009, the Nubian community was considered as ‘Other Kenyans' or simply ‘Others'. Three men from the Nubian community sit in a small shop in the Kibera slum.
    Having lived in Kenya for over 100 years, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been denied recognition. Up until the most recent census conducted in mid-2009, the Nubian community was considered as ‘Other Kenyans' or simply ‘Others'. Three men from the Nubian community sit in a small shop in the Kibera slum. © UNHCR/G. Constantine
  • This stateless ethnic Korean man moved from Uzbekistan to Ukraine in 1993. He has been living with a Ukrainian woman for a decade, but has not been able to register their union without valid documents.
    This stateless ethnic Korean man moved from Uzbekistan to Ukraine in 1993. He has been living with a Ukrainian woman for a decade, but has not been able to register their union without valid documents.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • This 11-year-old girl was born in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, but has lived most of her life in Ukraine. She would like to get Ukrainian citizenship, but has faced problems getting her birth certificate recognized.
    This 11-year-old girl was born in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, but has lived most of her life in Ukraine. She would like to get Ukrainian citizenship, but has faced problems getting her birth certificate recognized.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A map of West Africa is drawn in chalk on the wall of a home in a village in south-western Côte d'Ivoire. Millions of people from surrounding countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana were welcomed into Côte d'Ivoire in the 1960s and 70s to build the country's economy. As a result, a third of Côte d'Ivoire's population is now considered to be of non-Ivorian descent. In the 1990s, politicians and intellectuals created the xenophobic concept of "Ivoirité" and have since exploited this divide to manipulate issues of nationality, documentation, voting rights and land ownership.
    A map of West Africa is drawn in chalk on the wall of a home in a village in south-western Côte d'Ivoire. Millions of people from surrounding countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana were welcomed into Côte d'Ivoire in the 1960s and 70s to build the country's economy. As a result, a third of Côte d'Ivoire's population is now considered to be of non-Ivorian descent. In the 1990s, politicians and intellectuals created the xenophobic concept of "Ivoirité" and have since exploited this divide to manipulate issues of nationality, documentation, voting rights and land ownership.  © UNHCR/G.Constantine
  • A Burkinabé man collects cocoa pods on a plantation in Côte d'Ivoire. Non-Ivorians have been the primary source of labour in the plantations, which brought wealth to the country. But they have been made scapegoats for many of the nation's economic and political problems. Most have lived in Côte d'Ivoire for decades, yet millions cannot prove their nationality. Few have legal claim to the land.
    A Burkinabé man collects cocoa pods on a plantation in Côte d'Ivoire. Non-Ivorians have been the primary source of labour in the plantations, which brought wealth to the country. But they have been made scapegoats for many of the nation's economic and political problems. Most have lived in Côte d'Ivoire for decades, yet millions cannot prove their nationality. Few have legal claim to the land.  © UNHCR/G. Constantine