Watching “Stateless” with Stateless People

By Jessica P. George, an ally of United Stateless

This scene from “Stateless” depicts the office of the immigration official tasked with managing visa applications at the detention center. The disorder and disregard for migrants’ files is indicative of the way many countries worldwide treat the people caught in their immigration systems, including the stateless. Illustration by Hanna Kim, an ally of United Stateless.

As Netflix mini-series “Stateless” debuted recently, I joined fellow colleagues of United Stateless to watch together via Netflix Party. United Stateless is a nonprofit led by stateless people in the United States with a mission to build community among the stateless and to advocate for their human rights.

You may be wondering, “What is a ‘stateless’ person?” Unfortunately, even if you have watched “Stateless,” you are no wiser.

The “Stateless” series is a powerful and moving drama that takes a hard look at the deep failings of our immigration systems.

But “Stateless” is not about stateless people.

The show fails to enlighten viewers about actual stateless people, leaving viewers to their own devices to draw into incorrect assumptions about what “stateless” means.

Is the show’s title an attempt to use the less well known word “stateless” to grab the attention of viewers? Such a ploy would be more forgivable if the show were not produced by a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Goodwill Ambassador, actor Cate Blanchett, who has spoken publicly about stateless people and even created a short educational video about statelessness.

One would think that Blanchett’s goal in producing a series titled “Stateless” would be to use her fame to draw attention to one of the most tragic and unknown human rights crises of our era: in this modern world, where our rights as human beings are dependent upon holding a legal identity that is recognized and tied to a state, there are millions of people who are stateless not recognized as citizens by any country. Statelessness has many causes, such as gaps or changes in citizenship laws, migration, state succession, or state discrimination.

The stateless are foreigners everywhere. They are left on the sidelines of modernity, often unable to work, get a driver’s license, passport, or identity document, cross borders, open a bank account, obtain a loan, vote, or grab a drink at a bar. Even if they marry U.S. citizens, they can face barriers in obtaining a green card. When detained for deportation, the stateless are held in detention centers for months and even years while authorities try to find a country to accept them. They are often released with no visa and no path to citizenship, but no way to leave the country.¹

The “Stateless” series, set in Australia, glosses over the only arguably stateless character, an elderly man who has been detained for over 7 years because no country would accept him for deportation. He remains a mute wallflower who sits in his suit on a chair in the courtyard of the detention center, with his suitcase by his side, staring into space.

We never hear his story.

The main character is a white Australian named Sofie with mental health challenges who finds herself in immigration detention (based on actual events). Another main character is Ameer, an Afghan refugee who, while deserving of protection, does not appear stateless.

The reality is that stateless people may or may not legally qualify as refugees and often fall through the cracks of immigration systems. While refugees and stateless people are in similar situations lacking protection of their country of origin, they have two distinct legal definitions.

Refugees must prove a well-founded fear of persecution on a protected ground (race, religion, national origin, social group, political opinion).² While some stateless qualify for refugee status because their country of origin intentionally withheld or withdrew their citizenship due to a protected ground,³ many people are stateless without active, discriminatory state persecution. They simply fail to meet any country’s requirements for citizenship.

This leaves a protection gap that relatively few countries have acted to fill, including the U.S., where there is no dedicated visa for the stateless; although, the draft Refugee Protection Act includes stateless protection, which would make a monumental difference if enacted.

This protection gap exists in spite of an entire body of international law dedicated to protecting the stateless. The Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons was intended to be finalized at the same time as the well-known Refugee Convention of 1951. But the statelessness treaty missed the wave of post-war momentum that pushed the refugee convention to be adopted by 154 state parties.⁴ The 1954 Convention of the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are ratified by only 94 and 75 countries, respectively. Meanwhile, some estimates place the global number of stateless people at up to 12 million souls. A recent 2020 study placed the U.S. stateless population at up to 218,000.

With this history of global foot-dragging on stateless protection, it is understandable that people who are stateless share a feeling of being left behind and overlooked. The stateless are constantly fighting for recognition and understanding from the media, the public, lawmakers, and even from family, friends, and natural allies in the human rights fields.

As United Stateless watched “Stateless,” there were common sentiments of anger, frustration, and exasperation that the stateless also need to fight for understanding in the wake of a Netflix series titled “Stateless,” produced by a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, that is not actually about statelessness.

In a webinar with the show’s creators and cast on July 23, United Stateless questioned panelists about the title. Blanchett admitted that “the show is not about statelessness” in the technical sense of the word, but rather in a figurative sense through the notion of “invisibility, estrangement, and inability to forge an identity.” She emphasized, “Not one single series can speak to all the experiences… This is just the beginning of the conversation.”

Hopefully, this misnamed series can serve as a catalyst to start talking about the stateless, why they have been overlooked for so long, and why they are deserving of our attention and protection.

United Stateless is ready and eager to have those conversations.

Jessica George is an attorney based in Baltimore, Maryland. She launched and led a legal services and advocacy project for stateless people in South Africa and is an ally of United Stateless. She can be reached at jessica@unitedstateless.org. Read reactions of stateless people to the “Stateless” series here and here.

[1] David C. Baluarte, Life after Limbo: Stateless Persons in the United States and the Role of International Protection in Achieving a Legal Solution
https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1508&context=wlufac

[2] https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/53e1dd114.pdf

[3] https://www.unhcr.org/ibelong/stateless-minorities/

[4] https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/11/1025561

We’re a national organization led by stateless people. We build and inspire community among those affected by statelessness and advocate for their human rights.

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