No place to call home

Art December 17, 2015 01:00


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Photographer Greg Constantine turns his lens on the desperate plight of stateless people

Working on a project in 2002 about North Korean refugees seeking asylum in Southeast Asia introduced American photographer Greg Constantine to the issue of statelessness – the topic of his latest book, “Nowhere People”, which will be launched tomorrow at the Soy Sauce Factory in Bangkok.
“I met several North Korean women who had lived for years hiding in China,” writes Constantine, who has lived in Southeast Asia for 10 years. “When I met them, they had just escaped from China and were on the run. They were travelling with their young children, hoping to make it to South Korea. The children didn’t possess birth certificates or any other form of identification. They were not citizens of North Korea or China. They were stateless.
“Their situation forced me to ask questions about their futures and about the challenges they would face without citizenship, [without] an identity or documents.”
A few years later he decided to look into the issue more deeply. That was the beginning of a 10-year project “learning about the tragedy and scope of statelessness around the world” – for what turned out to be his third book.
“Conflict, the shifting of borders, the collapse of colonialism and the break-up of states like the Soviet Union and the creation of new ones have resulted in millions of people becoming stateless,” he writes.
“Inconsistent and inadequate citizenship laws cause people to find themselves in a legal no-man’s land. The lack of documentation such as birth certificates, marriage certificates and other forms of identification can contribute to statelessness and can often result in the inheritance of statelessness from one generation to the next. But in most cases, statelessness is rooted in discrimination and intolerance.
“The determination between who has access to resources and who does not, who can participate and who cannot, who belongs and who does not, commonly creates a conflict where identity is manipulated.
“Rather than embracing a shared identify, ‘others’ are created and the differences exploited between ‘us’ and ‘them’. That leads governments and people in power to use citizenship as a weapon to disenfranchise those who they feel threaten their political, ethnic or personal interests.
“Citizenship, the connection that should like each and every one of us to a state, is synonymous with empowerment, inclusion and belonging. Denial of citizenship is used to do the very opposite: marginalise, exclude and cast aside.”
When Constantine started work on “Nowhere People” in late 2005, statelessness was an issue that received little attention, he says, and few international organisations were focusing on it. But in the years since, recognition of the plight of stateless people has increased and gained momentum.
“For some, like the Rohingya, the Bidoon and Dominicans of Haitian descent, their situations have become exponentially worse. Yet for a few, positive change has occurred,” he writes.
“After I completed my work on the Urdu-speaking community of Bangladesh in 2008, the community was granted citizenship.” Three years later, new laws in Kenya and a ruling from the African Committee of Exports on the Rights and Welfare of the Child about Kenya’s failure to register and grant nationality to Nubian children improved that community’s situation.
Other countries signed United Nations conventions relating to statelessness. Two previous books have helped lift the profile of this problem, the first on Nubians in Kenya, the second on Myanmar’s Rohingya (“Exiled to Nowhere”, reviewed here two years ago).
This book covers tough ground – the lives of more than 10 million people around the world stuck in a grim and bleak existence. Yet it’s impressive package – a quality hardcover product done with designer Helen Kudrich Coleman and Bangkok-based photographer Roland Neveu, featuring a foreword by Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and strong black-and-white photos that show and tell the stories of these desperate people’s lives. Some of the photos were exhibited last year at the Peace Palace in The Hague during the first Global Forum on Statelessness.
Thailand has a serious problem of statelessness, with more than 440,000 mostly hilltribe people in the North lacking citizenship, plus a further 139,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the UN refugee agency.
Sadly, that gets only brief mention in this large book – two small photos among the 374 pages. On the other hand, Thailand has UN and local advocates pushing the government to make progress on these issues. At the beginning of this month the UNHCR welcomed Thai government moves to grant nationality to some 18,000 stateless people over the past three years.
Constantine has chosen to focus instead on the plight of stateless people in 12 countries: Urdu-speaking Biharis in Bangladesh; the Dalit in Nepal’s Terai; Filipinos and Indonesian children in Malaysian Borneo; Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State; the Bidoon in Kuwait; the Ahwazi (an ethnic minority originally from Iran), plus Kurds and Dom in strife-torn Iraq; the Roma in Serbia and in Italy; Crimean Tatars in Ukraine and Uzbekistan; Nubians in Kenya; the Haute Volta (Burkino Faso) in Ivory Coast; and people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic.
“Nowhere People” is an important work, a timely reminder of the urgent need to resolve these people’s problems. Senior government leaders in Thailand and Myanmar should be given a copy of this book and told to rectify their lethargic and broken bureaucratic procedures.
  •   “Nowhere People” is available in bookshops for Bt1,900.
  •  Constantine’s photo exhibition runs until January 8 at Soy Sauce Factory on Charoenkrung Soi 24. For details, check or
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