Photographer Greg Constantine brings into focus the struggle of statelessness in his book Nowhere People.
IMAGINE this. You are refused the right to register for school. You are denied access to a doctor even when you feel you can no longer stand up. You are told you can’t open a bank account, get a driving licence, a car or travel out of the state. You have no right to vote. You are not protected by any laws.
You are not allowed to work legally, what more own a home or rent a house. You cannot register the birth of your child, nor the death of your mother. For 12 million people around the world, this is a grim and painful reality.
Statelessness is one of the most pressing issues of our time and since the civil war in Syria has sparked the biggest human migration since World War Two, the numbers have snowballed and the need for a solution is critical. In his latest book Nowhere People, American award-winning documentary photographer Greg Constantine captures the harrowing lives of stateless people in the hope of shedding light on an issue most countries have preferred to keep in the dark.
PASSPORT TO NOWHERE
“I think most people are shocked and surprised to learn that there is such a thing as being stateless,” says Constantine who has exhibited his work Nowhere People: The Global Face of Statelessness in New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Geneva and Tokyo. Exiled To Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya which is part of Constantine’s Nowhere People Project has just opened in Sydney, Australia. “Most of us can’t imagine statelessness is still happening in this day and age.
“Citizenship is about empowerment, inclusion and belonging. Denial of citizenship is used to do the very opposite, marginalise, exclude and cast aside,” he argues.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a stateless person as “someone who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law,” and considers them one of the most vulnerable to human rights abuses such as human trafficking.
“Statelessness is a global issue so my whole purpose is to show what statelessness looks like,” says Constantine of the book which offers an insight to the lives of stateless men, women and children in 12 countries.
In every country the cause of statelessness varies, but as the UNHCR point out, at the root of it all is discrimination. “Not many people understand the power of the state. It is the arbitrary denial of citizenship, the impunity of power which allows for such situations,” Constantine explains, citing as an example the Dominican Republic.
In 2013, Dominican’s of Haitian descent had their citizenship revoked, rendering them stateless. “Statelessness doesn’t take a form of violence. It commonly takes the passing of a new law, the issuing of a discriminatory policy or procedure,” he adds.
The urgency in finding a solution for statelessness recently emerged from the refugee crisis in Europe and the plight of the Rohingya in Asia, but the issue has existed for a long time. The mass exodus of refugees from war-torn Europe during World War II forced the UN to draft a convention in relation to statelessness in 1954.
The convention, according to journalist Amelia Gentleman of The Guardian, has been slow in its efforts to put an end to the problem. “The campaigners in the field are dismayed at how little progress has been made over that time,” she writes in her 2014 article, but adds that the UN has come up with a new 10-year Global Action plan.
The discriminatory policies Constantine is referring to are addressed in the UNHCR’s decade-long plan. From gender discrimination (some countries do not allow women to pass down their nationality to their children), racial or religious discrimination (as with the Rohingya). Statelessness can also occur when state boundaries are drawn overnight due to war or conflict and the displacement of refugees who have been forced to flee their country.
The Syrian crisis alone, according to the UNHCR, has caused up to 70 per cent of children to be stateless, as many have been born without being registered.
FRAMING THE ISSUE
Constantine, who in 2005 was travelling across Asia, came upon a group of North Korean women who were in hiding. “It was totally by chance that I had met these women who had no citizenship. When I met them they had just escaped from China and were on the run, hoping to make it to South Korea. It forced me to think how they lived day to day being completely invisible to the system,” says Constantine, recalling how he became involved with the issue of statelessness. “What was supposed to be a one-year photo-essay project turned into something that spanned a decade.”
Since then he has travelled the globe, using his camera as a tool to tell the stories of an often forgotten people — from the Romani in Italy and Bidoon in Kuwait, the Dalits in India and Hill Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Nubians in Kenya, the Bihari in Bangladesh , Ukraine’s Crimean Tartars, the Rohingya in Myanmar and in our own backyard, the Southern Filipinos — all situations which have existed over the last few decades also.
While many today are stateless as a result of the refugee crisis, Constantine points out that not all stateless people are refugees.
“Most stateless people have never left the country of their birth. They often feel a real connection to the land they are born in but they have nothing to prove they are citizens of that country. Their displacement is due to abuse.”
He shares that he was particularly taken by the situation of the Rohingya, a crisis he describes as being the most extreme example of statelessness. “By 2006 while in Bangladesh, it was clear to me that the issue of statelessness demanded more investigation. I felt it needed to be an ongoing story because all the complexities of the issues can be lost because of how long this has been going on for,” he explains.
CHANGE, ONE SNAPSHOT AT A TIME
“I hope Nowhere People can provide a translation of what statelessness looks like,” Constantine shares from his homebase in Bangkok.
“I hope to communicate through photography how being stateless affects the daily lives of these people. We need to ask questions — how does it affect access to education, healthcare, rights, a sense of community and belonging? They are not accepted as people who have something to contribute to society, including their language, cultural and historical heritage. Denying the right to contribute to society in those terms have huge physiological impacts,” he divulges, adding that he hopes the book will also hold states accountable for their discriminatory policies.
“The book may not lead to policy changes, but it’s a starting point so people are aware of what’s going on or why these people are where they are. When people learn about statelessness, they have a greater appreciation of the context of why they are going through things,” observes Constantine.
He continues: “Awareness on the subject matter could build a more tolerant society. We can learn to appreciate the tenacity of stateless people to survive against all odds. I can only hope the awareness created through their stories can guide the public or bigger organisations in power to lobby for better policies regarding statelessness.”
A decade to end statelessness in the world might seem far-fetched, but it’s never too late to help change things for the better. I know Greg Constantine has, one powerful photograph at a time.
Author: Greg Constantine
Publisher: Nowhere People