How not to react when somebody tells you they are stateless

@Thex, Statefree Community Author

December 2022

In this blog entry, @Thex, Statefree community author reflects on how allies can best engage with the experiences of stateless people, arguing that it is important to develop sensitive reactions to hearing about somebody’s statelessness. Statefree is a community-centred non-profit which aims to build community, increase visibility and enable equal rights for stateless people. On its community blog, Statefree encourages stateless people and allies to come together and share knowledge, perspectives and experiences with each other in order to learn and grow together as a community. Further information on the Statefree initiative can be found by reading the previous Critical Statelessness Studies blog authored by Stateless founder, Christiana Bukalo. 

With conversations about statelessness, it’s like every other topic you can think of: People react intuitively, what first comes to mind is often said immediately. With statelessness, reacting in the lightness and ease of everyday topics can often take uncomfortable turns.

“Oh, you’re stateless? That’s so cool, I also understand myself as a cosmopolitan! I wish I were stateless.”

“Stateless? I don’t get it, everybody is born somewhere.”

“Oh, stateless? I heard of it, you have a horrible life!”

Have you had that kind of conversation recently, or does it sound familiar? Stateless people are often confronted with the broad lack of knowledge in society, encountering  disbelief, questioning and the burden of proof when sharing their story. Besides that, some people also react with the sort of sympathy and compassion that doesn’t leave room for the experiences of stateless people, their individual road of life and its richness. Assumptions are made quickly, and even though a lot of stateless people feel that statelessness has had a huge impact on their life, what defines their identity and personality differs like it does with every other individual.

While these reactions often show real feelings and are not intentionally overstepping boundaries, they also show little awareness of the harshness such conversations can mean to a stateless person.

Speaking up about a stateless person’s experience can be uncomfortable for several reasons. First and foremost, the experience of statelessness is often tied to experiences of exclusion and marginalisation. Aside from that, speaking up can also be tiring because stateless people often end up in conversations in which they must explain or prove their status or must convince the other person that their statelessness is “real”. In this case, the lack of knowledge about statelessness and its tied aspects – e.g., not having documents or specific rights – makes it harder for stateless people to just speak about their experiences and be heard and understood. It therefore needs sensibility to listen and understand what is part of the story of being stateless.

While certain reactions might simply come from a place of confusion, lack of knowledge and awareness, there are ways to foster a compassionate conversation without creating an uncomfortable situation for stateless people. It’s time to give the conversation another turn, especially when stateless people decide to share their story and therefore are being honest and vulnerable. In respect of that, here are some hints for the next conversations to come: How not to react when somebody tells you they are stateless?

Q&A image by Statefree

Q&A image by Statefree

NB: This blog was originally published on the Statefree website and has been reproduced with permission.


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. Learn more about the CSS project or learn how to contribute to the blog.