Stocktake of Critical Statelessness Studies to date (2020 - 2023): Renewing the Call for Innovative Contributions to the Field

by Sumedha Choudhury and Thomas McGee

November 2023

More than 3 years after the start of the Critical Statelessness Studies Project, Sumedha Choudhury and Thomas McGee reflect on ground covered by the blog to date, and renew the call for innovative submissions from those working on, or affected by, statelessness.

More than three years since establishing the Critical Statelessness Studies (CSS) project, we bid farewell to one of its founders, Deirdre Brennan, as editor of this blog series. As she completes her PhD and moves on to new endeavours, we welcome Sumedha Choudhury to the editorial team. This transition has prompted us to collectively reflect on the trajectory of CSS and consider the directions we would like to see the project take going forward.

In July 2020, the CSS blog was launched as a space for engaged scholars to work on statelessness through critical theories and innovative methods. The original call for participation focused on reconsidering existing concepts and approaches and retelling the established truth or ‘knowledge’ of statelessness. Since then, with a total of 29 blog entries, the project has covered significant ground. In addition to scholars, this space has been utilised by activists, practitioners, policymakers and stateless individuals alike to narrate their ways of thinking and engaging with statelessness. In fact, many of the contributors bridge multiple such categories of identification, taking on hybrid positionalities such as “activist scholars” or “stateless changemakers”. Building on this, we would like to reiterate the call for actors in the statelessness sector to continue to reflect on their personal subjectivities and the implications of such subjectivities within their work.

What has CSS covered so far?

A cursory look through the contributions to date reveals how statelessness has been approached through multiple conceptual, methodological and epistemological lenses. Retelling statelessness stories from a critical perspective has entailed going beyond the dominant legal concepts of statelessness and endorsing alternative methods such as decolonial epistemology, queer feminist oral history, archival testimony and subaltern perspectivity. Theoretically, contributors have drawn from fields as diverse as sociolinguistics, transitional justice, citizenship studies and the ethics of care. Of course, this is not to say that legal studies cannot be critical and present new perspectives, as evidenced in Fisher’s exposition of the travaux prĂ©paratoires to the 1954 Convention.

Several contributions have critically engaged with the institutional structures and practices linked to dominant actors in the statelessness sector. Examples include the critique of UNHCR’s hierarchy of protection for stateless refugees (whereby statelessness is generally demoted as a background consideration), interrogation of the accuracy of, and definitional challenges within, statistical reporting on statelessness, as well as questioning activity prioritisation within civil society statelessness work when resources are often limited. Further, some contributors have even challenged the appropriateness and desirability of using the term “stateless”, such as for the Rohingya ethnic community, where the decontextualised employment of the term risks legitimising the state’s exclusionary practices.

A number of contributions have reflected on ways to avoid epistemic violence in engaging with statelessness. Bukalo, founder of State Free, reflecting on her experiences researching statelessness as a stateless person, calls for efforts to close the knowledge gap between stateless people and statelessness research. Other contributions have focused on how non-stateless individuals have a responsibility to engage sensitively with those more directly affected by the issue, including not reacting poorly when somebody reveals to us their statelessness and avoiding giving non-consensual hypervisibility to other people’s statelessness. We are grateful for such contributions that provide the personal reflections of people with lived experiences of statelessness alongside engagement in civil society mobilisation, highlighting that stateless people are never only stateless. Focusing on the Palestinian context, Jeanine Hourani highlighted the importance of avoiding and understanding the implications of deficit-based language - a highly topical subject given the mainstream media’s often dehumanising coverage of recent events in Gaza and Israel.

Where to go From Here?

Through the CSS project, we have always strived to promote critically reflective work emerging out of Global South contexts. While most of the blog series contributions are on statelessness issues occurring in the Global South (as indeed, this is where we find the most significant numbers of people affected by the issue), these contributors are predominantly based in Global North institutions. This point was underlined in a recently published Statelessness and Citizenship Review article, where Boone analysed selected academic literature on statelessness from 2014 to 2023. The study shows how power imbalance prevails in academic scholarship on statelessness as a product of the wider structural problems and the politics of knowledge production within academia in the Global North. As such, we hope to move forward as a platform towards a more nuanced understanding of what diversity and ‘power imbalance’ mean in terms of working and writing about statelessness and stateless people.

Moreover, we acknowledge that geographical coverage within CSS has been uneven. While we have covered a good number of statelessness contexts in the regions of Europe, the Middle East and (South) Asia, only one contribution has focused on Africa, and we have to date received no submissions specific to Latin American contexts. We, therefore, encourage contributions from those engaged with statelessness in these latter contexts. We also encourage contributions from researchers and activists working outside the (mainstream) Anglophone context to share their experiences of possible specificities in meaning and connotation about statelessness in other languages. This is integral to reorienting and broadening our understanding of critical statelessness studies. On the most fundamental level, such exercises should enable us to approach statelessness beyond the Nation-State ‘Container Model’, which has long been the dominant structure of analysis.

A related and recurring challenge is how to promote more contributions from individuals with lived experiences of statelessness - both those with scholarly pursuits and those outside the academy. We also seek to foster collaborations to establish ‘true engagement’ rather than engagement for tokenism's sake. One contributor to the blog, adopting a Gramscian notion of the ‘organic intellectual’, has argued that our interventions with statelessness need to reconcile ‘scholarly vision with activist commitment’ to challenge the limits imposed by the nation-state system.

Another aspect that has received limited attention within CSS is the question of how statelessness is represented or reflected in artistic production. To date, contributors have touched upon this topic through debates triggered by a short film from Myanmar and how a popular superhero comic film serves as a metaphor for the reality of statelessness and nationality. It is heartening to see that recent research is also engaging with how stateless people (or those at risk of statelessness) have innovated distinct ways of expressing their lived experiences. An example is found in the analysis of Miya poetry, a form of artistic protest by the marginalised Bengal-origin Muslim community in Assam, India. Practices of the community reclaiming the racial slur ‘Miya’ and weaving in their stories of persecution and statelessness prompt us to reflect on the possibility of art-based interventions and to reimagine statelessness studies from 'below'. We, therefore, hope the CSS blog can expand its coverage of these new and critical ways of engaging with statelessness and encourage contributions from those who wish to showcase their work in art-based or other creative formats.

In reimaging the world of statelessness, academia should learn from the lived and activist experiences of the stateless community and create enabling conditions for them to speak for themselves. We hope that CSS can contribute to making statelessness research more accessible and accountable. Progress has been made in the sector, but more remains to be done. We hope that the CSS can (continue to) be an accessible space for exploring such ideas and serve as a bridge between stateless people and those often working at a distance within academia and policy circles. We would like to close this blog with some comments and reflections from Deirdre Brennan as she looks backwards at her time with CSS and forward to its future potential:

‘I have been delighted to be part of the development of the CSS blog, and as I reflect on the contributions made since its inception in 2020, it is with heaviness of heart that I step aside from this exciting project. The breadth and creativity of subjects that authors expressed in their writing, each month, inspired and pushed the boundaries of much of my own work. My sense, leaving the project, is that a real community has been formed, regardless of the frequency with which we see one another. As Thomas and Sumedha note, this will continue to be a space to promote the expression of creative critical thought and I hope to witness more growth in this community. I, and Thomas too, have especially enjoyed seeing creative ideas turn to blogs which in turn were developed into journal articles. To early career scholars, practitioners, those affected by statelessness, and those with limited time to dedicate to publication, I would encourage you to continue taking advantage of the accessibility of the CSS platform to develop and convey your ideas - whether or not you hope to use CSS as a steppingstone for academic literature.’