Asserting Statelessness: Using Archival History to Challenge State Discourse

Jordana Silverstein

July 2022

In this blog, Jordana Silverstein, Senior Research Fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, explores the ways we can read the testimonies of stateless people in the Australian archives to think about relationships between stateless people and the states they migrate to.

I come to studying statelessness as a historian who thinks about what makes up Australia: about its pasts and presents, the movement of populations, the role of settler-colonialism in shaping structures and forms of government.

I also come to studying statelessness as the granddaughter of stateless refugees: two of my grandparents were survivors of the Holocaust from Poland who arrived in Australia on the SS Sagittaire on 29 September 1949, and described themselves on their landing documents as ‘Stateless ex Polish’ and ‘Stateless/Formerly Polish’. They asserted statelessness for themselves.

Stories like theirs sit in the National Archives of Australia. In this blog, I will share one such story in order to raise questions about how we can think about the ways in which people consider their statelessness. Looking at the testimonies of stateless people from the past opens an opportunity for us to consider how stateless people have related to the new nation-states in which they have found themselves living, and how these nation-states have related to them.

At the start of February 1943, a Jewish man who had come from Germany and was living in Sydney wrote to Prime Minister John Curtin. He had served in the Australian Army, but after leaving he became categorised as an ‘enemy alien’, with all the restrictions that entailed. He wrote to the Prime Minister of his wish –

“to make you aware that the existing regulations provide me with the despising title of an ‘Enemy Alien’ – This after I had volunteered, had taken the oath and had the honour to serve as a N.C.O. [Non-Commissioned Officer] in the Australian Forces. – I feel sure that cases like mine had not been taken into consideration when those regulations – now applying also to me – have been issued.

I think there is no democratic country in the world that under the same circumstances would declare me – a stateless person – an ‘Enemy Alien’, just after having been discharged by its army as invalided, following an accident while on duty. The taking of the oath in itself should provide me with the nationality of the country for which I volunteered to serve and play my part equal to any other member of the Military Forces. But the regulations say otherwise and thus deprive not only me but also my family of the benefits for invalided soldiers.

I trust you will see your way clear to amend these regulations and thus bring them in line with the democratic ideas this war is being fought for. By doing so you would only bring justice to men who already proved their worthiness by voluntarily offering health and life to the country they love and hope now to be declared citizens of .”

Amongst his papers in the official bureaucrats file – that now sits in the Archives – sit letters sent by the Australian Jewish Welfare Society to the Attorney-General’s Department, explaining to them why German Jews should be considered stateless. They provide copies of the Nuremberg Laws, amongst other items, with documents from the German Reich and the UK bureaucracy being given significant weight in the Attorney-General’s Department consideration of whether Jews from Germany living in Australia should be considered ‘enemy aliens’ or ‘refugee aliens’.

While this story is almost 80 years old, its resonances continue into the present. What has been the role of government bureaucracy in displacing the testimonies of stateless people? Why can it not be considered sufficient for someone to say they are stateless for them to be recognised as such? What would it do to the ways we think about statelessness, but also about the law and legal processes and the states authority to determine people’s lives, if people were able to articulate themselves and for that articulation to have authority?

In thinking this story through and the questions it raises, I think about what kind of state this man – and others like him – were encountering when they came to Australia. Australia is a settler-colony, which means that it is shaped by a colonial project based around the idea that the settlers “come to stay”, taking the land and “eliminating” the Indigenous peoples, as the historian Patrick Wolfe explained. Crystal McKinnon, who is an Amangu Yamaji First Nations woman and historian, writes about the ways that colonial power is flexible and everywhere, and is “exerted through multiple avenues, both informally through social actions and formally through explicit and state-sanctioned practices.” Controls on how all migrants – including stateless people – are able to live in Australia is central to this colonialism. The Australian settler-colonial state is always regulating and controlling the make-up of the population.

How have stateless people negotiated their lives as they have come into contact with this kind of nation-state? I think we can see this negotiation in this archival story. This man pushes back against the settler-colony that tries to keep defining, controlling, and excluding him. He asserts that he will make a series of political claims for how he wants to be seen and understood. But he also seeks incorporation into the settler-colony. His story, and the numerous others like his, are an invitation, I think, for us to see the many formations and articulations through which the power of the nation-state has been challenged. They invite us to see the role of the nation-state in creating and enabling statelessness. At the same time, they remind us of the limits of that challenge within local and global structures, which produce and reinforce the need for people to attain a citizenship somewhere.

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.