In this blog entry, Christiana Bukalo, founder of State Free, reflects on her experiences researching statelessness as a stateless person. She questions the subjective assumptions that organisations in the statelessness sector may be integrating in their solutions to the issue. And, she proposes a way forward in order to narrow the gap between stateless people and the statelessness actors she 'discovered'.
Knowledge is power - the more we know, the more we can do. Conversely, the lack of knowledge creates powerlessness - the less we know, the less we can do. This describes how I feel about the topic of statelessness. Since I was born in Germany, I’ve been affected by the circumstance of not having a nationality. Despite the fact my childhood and youth have been strongly impacted by it, I was never able to create a solid understanding of what statelessness actually means.
Looking back, I recognise that this lack of comprehension stemmed from various factors. One was the subconscious conviction that passive ignorance would prevent me from the potential trauma of being confronted with the negative realities caused by statelessness. The second factor was the misperception of the scope. As I had never met anyone who knew about statelessness nor anyone who was affected by it, I was convinced that me and my family must be the only ones affected by it.
The third and most unfortunate factor was the lack of information, as it directly impacted and maintained the aforementioned points. The lack of transparency was upholding my behaviour of ignorance and stopped me from realising that I was one out of millions of stateless people. Furthermore, in situations in which I did reach out and requested information from authorities, such as Germany’s Foreigners Office, it became very clear that institutions seemed to follow a similar behaviour of ignorance.
Two years ago, at a point in which my frustration reached an extraordinary peak, I set myself the mission to try again. Trying again meant to research statelessness again but be more persistent this time. My mission was to find an official institution which held all the necessary information and was able to inform stateless people about their rights and possibilities. While the initial goal was to find THE single source of truth, the research quickly led to the realisation that there is no such source. Nonetheless, it also led to the realisation that there are several institutions and non-profits which are already working on the topic of statelessness. I learned about the European Network on Statelessness, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness.
This discovery created a strong dichotomy of feelings. While I was excited and relieved about the fact that certain organisations were advocating for my rights, I was equally confused about the fact that I, as a stateless person, had never heard about those organisations before. As someone whose professional background was in the media and technology sector, it’s part of my basic understanding that the development of a valuable product can only occur in close interaction with the defined target group. This interaction with the target group is mostly referred to as “user research”. In the figurative sense I assumed the same was true for the non-business sector. Hence, I couldn’t really imagine how several organisations and researchers would be able to develop impactful “products” – in this case concepts and proposals – on how to improve the situation of stateless people, without involving their target group: stateless people.
What I’ve learned from the commercial sector is that companies that fail to integrate user research and feedback into their process of product development also fail to create true value and impact. This results in the unfortunate combination of an unsatisfied target group and an unsuccessful company. My worry was that non-profits in the statelessness sector had been following the ineffective habit of building solutions based on subjective assumptions. In reality, I didn’t really know whether non-profits had been interacting with stateless people, but I did know that nobody had ever asked me. Furthermore, the fact that I was still suffering under the impact of statelessness made it clear that the “products”, which had been developed by those institutions, had not yet created true impact for me.
What I had perceived was a gap between those affected by statelessness and those working to fight statelessness, and, driven by an urge to solve this problem, I decided to take things into my own hands. To this end, I am currently building a website which aims to break up the silos and connect those experiencing statelessness with those who are fighting to end it. The website, statefree.world, will focus on addressing the need for communication and exchange in the field of statelessness. The objective is to utilise the power of collective knowledge to co-create the truth about statelessness. This requires producing an authentic reflection of what it means to be stateless in today's world in order to create a realistic understanding of what is needed to improve stateless people’s situations. By inviting stateless people to speak up about their struggles and challenges, statefree.world aims to create community between those affected. At the same time, the website will allow actors within the sector to share their information and knowledge with those who need it and hereby support stateless people in understanding their situation.
While stateless people, and the protection of their privacy, remain at the core of the website’s mission, collaboration with non-profits, activists and policy makers is key to solving the problem. Therefore, the platform encourages policy makers and organisations to join the conversation and contribute to the crucial debate about what exactly is happening in the area of statelessness. While recognising the hardship caused by not having a nationality, I intentionally chose to move away from the negative connotation of the term “less” and chose the word “free” instead. This is mainly because the idea and intention of statefree.world is to empower - with information, knowledge and experiences. Amid challenging circumstances statefree.world will give stateless people the chance to take ownership, create a community and eventually move away from the state of powerlessness.
The platform is currently in the development phase. In the meantime, we encourage everyone interested to sign up and register via this link in order to be informed as soon as the forum is launched.
More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series
The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.