Histories of Statelessness in Australia

This project looks at experiences of stateless people in Australia, and government responses to statelessness.

Australia was involved in the drafting of the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, including sending a delegate to attend the drafting meeting, but did not sign up to the Convention, nor to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, until 1973, under the Whitlam Government, on the same day that the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention was signed.

This project investigates the history of this involvement, looking at the negotiations that were undertaken within the Australian government bureaucracy and amongst parliamentarians from the 1950s to the 1970s. This history is part of a broader story of the White Australia Policy, which controlled both who could migrate to Australia and what they were allowed to do while they were in the country.

Alongside this history of government machinations, histories of statelessness are studied through an oral history project. Over the course of the next few years, people who were stateless when they arrived in Australia between 1933 and 1999 will participate in life history interviews. Through these interviews, this project will document the ways that people have understood, experienced, narrated and lived statelessness, and will show the similarities and differences amongst individuals and groups. Countering the all-too-common deficit narratives of stateless people and refugees, it will show the new knowledge and insights that are generated by people who have been – or are – stateless. It will provide an opportunity to think about the complexities and nuances of what ‘statelessness’ has meant, and can mean.

Broadly, this historical project tries to understand some of the relationships between nation-states and statelessness (and particularly between the settler-colonial state of Australia and statelessness), and how people have negotiated life lived under the control of the nation-state. It involves considering the different ways in which statelessness has been lived and can be understood, as well as possible alternative ways to address the problem of statelessness beyond granting citizenship. This involves engaging with the following questions, through a historical lens:

  • What alternatives can we imagine as a ‘solution’ to statelessness, other than asking the settler state to grant citizenship?
  • If we centre First Nation sovereignty, what does that do to how we understand statelessness and its solutions in Australia?
  • What does ‘solving statelessness’ look like when treated as a problem of nation-states, and/or a problem of settler-colonialism?

This project is led by Senior Research Fellow Dr Jordana Silverstein, with Jeanine Hourani acting as an expert consultant on the oral history project.