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

News Stories, 20 September 2011

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

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.

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The World's Stateless: A photo essay by Greg Constantine

Nationality might seem like a universal birthright, but it is estimated that up to 12 million people around the world are struggling to get along without it. They do not possess a nationality nor enjoy its legal benefits. They fall into a legal limbo; they are stateless. This often leaves them unable to do the basic things most people take for granted such as registering the birth of a child, travelling, going to school, opening a bank account or owning property.

Statelessness has a variety of causes. Some populations were excluded from citizenship at the time of independence from colonial rule. Others fall victim to mass denationalization. In some countries, women cannot confer nationality on their children. Sometimes, because of discrimination, legislation fails to guarantee citizenship for certain ethnic groups.

The problem is global. Under its statelessness mandate, UNHCR is advising stateless people on their rights and assisting them in acquiring citizenship. At the government level, it is supporting legal reform to prevent people from becoming stateless. With partners it undertakes citizenship campaigns to help stateless people to acquire nationality and documentation.

Photographer Greg Constantine is an award-winning photojournalist from the United States. In 2005, he moved to Asia and began work on his project, "Nowhere People," which documents the plight of stateless people around the world. His work has received a number of awards, including from Pictures of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, the Amnesty International Human Rights Press Awards (Hong Kong), the Society of Publishers in Asia, and the Harry Chapin Media Award for Photojournalism. Greg was a co-winner of the Osborn Elliot Prize for Journalism in Asia, presented annually by the Asia Society. Work from "Nowhere People" has been widely published and exhibited in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Switzerland, Ukraine, Hong Kong and Kenya. He is based in Southeast Asia.

The World's Stateless: A photo essay by Greg Constantine

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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Statelessness: A Message from UNHCR

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Thailand: Thang's Dilemma

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UNHCR : Breakthrough on Statelessness

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