On Stateless Activism and True Engagement

by Haqqi Bahram

September 2020

In this blog entry, Haqqi Bahram, PhD candidate at Link√∂ping University (Sweden) considers challenges faced by stateless activists in achieving real engagement within the statelessness sector. He argues that statelessness research and advocacy need to engage with stateless activists without co-opting their voices through tokenistic practices fixated on the performance of stateless ‘vulnerability’.

Advocating for the rights of stateless people essentially entails working directly with those affected by unfair policies that made their statelessness possible. This engagement is indeed the starting point from which true and focused work should develop. While work in the statelessness sector is increasingly led by international institutions and civil society actors from one side, academia also plays a vital role in guiding and informing advocacy efforts. Along this continuum of actors, there are stateless activists themselves who strive to find a place where they can affect a positive change. In this post, I observe some specific challenges that stateless activists face, the tokenisation practices that inherently exist alongside their engagement with various stakeholders, including academia, and I highlight possible and necessary paths towards true engagement.

Like in all human rights struggles, activists exist among the stateless who, through their personal experiences, represent and inform broader and deeper knowledge on the subject. While they share many challenges with their counterparts working on refugee and asylum issues for example, stateless activists in particular lack any state protection to theoretically invoke when doing advocacy work. Indeed, stateless activists might at the same time be refugees themselves, thus carrying the burden of striving to be recognized and claim equal rights. Likewise, stateless activists who engage in community mobilization in contexts of in situ statelessness, lack any democratic citizenry representation (however limited that may be even for citizens). In these contexts, attempting to organise a civil demonstration for example can be impeded by the fact that a stateless activist is not counted as a citizen. In fact, being a stateless activist in such contexts can involve risks of arrest, torture or even paying one’s life for the cause. Thus, having no access to the minimum democratic processes for self-expression, stateless activists are exposed to immense and multiple risks.

In the absence of state and legal protection, stateless activists often resort to broader civil society and international institutions to bring their issues into the light. This, however, might result in unfavoured outcomes where their issues are turned into yet another opportunity for fund hunting. The stories of stateless communities then become the medium through which misery is turned into institutional capital, much to the disadvantage of the stateless. This is not to say that all campaigns against statelessness at various levels have ended up in this void. Indeed, efforts by civil society and international institutions have been invaluable in advocating for a legal status in many contexts. It is more about the tokenism that inherently accompanies such campaigns where stateless activists are invited to share their stories of vulnerability (to raise funds) or stories of successful (often individual) naturalization (to validate institutional policies). As such, some profiles of stateless activists are seen constantly dragged from one platform to another and invited to participate in a rather theatrical performance demonstrating how their statelessness has been solved.

Academic research is not free either from the complicity in perpetuating such forms of engagement with stateless communities and activists. The field of statelessness studies which is inviting scholars from various disciplines is undeniably proof of efforts towards more diversity at least at the academic level. However, this generates a situation where the concept of statelessness can become overstretched or confused with other issues. This, and some of the unhelpful metaphors used can distract from the core problems that stateless activists and communities are concerned about. The desire to achieve a breakthrough under the name of statelessness studies may turn into a research fetishism with the idea that any form of anti-state ideology or romanticized cosmopolitanism, for instance, can be levelled with statelessness.

Again, this contributes to disappointment and further alienation of stateless activists from research. While some efforts have recently been made to include stateless activists in academic and policy research – in a few projects that I am aware of, such participation still needs to be developed so that stateless activists inhabit an equal ground and are equipped with the power of self-representation. In many academic texts, we find stories, especially by outspoken stateless persons, extracted and retold as a representation of the misery of being stateless and denied, unrecognized, neglected, invisible etc... In this manner, the obsession of academic research with stories of vulnerability may lead to obscuring other narratives of resistance and self-advocacy among the stateless which can in fact be more important and empowering for the stateless activists.

What opportunities are there for true engagement? Research should be preoccupied with ensuring the self-expression of stateless activists in a safe, secure and equitable manner. Instead of chasing narratives that make headlines and theoretical breakthroughs, researchers need to establish ethics through which stateless narratives become catalysts for change both in policy and on the ground. At the same time, international institutions should focus on facilitating coordination among stateless activists and discontinue co-optation practices that turn stateless activists into walking examples of vulnerability or inflated achievements. Activists in the statelessness sector are not artifacts nor are they performers appealing to our artistic taste. Stateless activists are authors, academic writers, political thinkers, change-makers and above all fellow humans who have aspirations outside the statelessness cell. Supporting already established stateless-led organisations and facilitating platforms for international self-advocacy should be at the core of any outreach towards stateless activists.

The statelessness sector needs now, more than any other time, to take a different approach through working together with stateless activists rather than working on them. The academic interdisciplinarity and inter-institutional character of statelessness work presents a unique opportunity for true engagement with stateless activists. To embrace stateless activists as equal counterparts in generating knowledge and informing policy on statelessness should be the real next breakthrough for statelessness advocacy and studies. ¤

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

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