The forefathers of our populists

Populist politicians are nothing new. And I am not talking about the 1930s. Populists have existed since the beginning of representative democracy, if not longer. This was brought home to me once more as I was reading a story from the nineteenth century.

The story is from the book Familie en kennissen, ‘family and acquaintances’. It was written by one of the few historical Dutch authors who are still read in schools today: Piet Paaltjens. Piet Paaltjens is famous for his ironic verse. But under a different name, the same author – a vicar in everyday life – also wrote sentimental tales in the accessible style of Hans Christian Andersen. His name: François HaverSchmidt. His stories have long been out of print, so I was happy some years ago to stumble on a second-hand copy.

This story, that shows so presagiously the workings of populism, is about two men who share the same house: a cobbler, who lives in the basement; and the owner, a man of independent means who dabbles in poetry. He lets the basement to the cobbler, and occupies the rest of the house himself. He is known throughout country to be a ‘great man’.

Illustration by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht for the third edition (1893). http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/have010fami01_01_0004.php

In 1893, the story was illustrated by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is primarily great for his great inheritance and his great political acumen. After a period of liberal hospitality and generosity towards established leaders of the national Church, he lands in a powerful ecclesiastic position. Next on his list is parliament.

First and foremost, [the great man] was great in his popularity. He was friendliness personified towards all. He not only lifted his hat for every unknown lady with a sweet face, but he even shook hands with all kinds of ordinary folk, stroked the children on the street under the chin – sometimes by accident also their nannies – and greeted the wharf loafers and layabouts by name. ‘They are people too,’ the great man used to say, ‘and we are all children of the same big family.’

On the day he is elected as a member of parliament,

several grocers put out their flags; he had stolen their hearts by making familiar conversation with them on their doorsteps. One of them had even had the text ‘the man of the people’ pasted on his banner in gold paper letters.

Yet men of the people are often better at telling the people what to think, than at listening to the people.

Not long after, one man from the ‘people’, a small cobbler […], was in The Hague, where he had a petition to make […] in the interest of his sister’s children, and on that occasion, [near parliament,] he met the representative of the people, who was in the company of several distinguished gentlemen. At first, he thought that the gentleman looked him sharply in the face, but he must have been mistaken, for one moment later the gentleman passed him at an inch’s distance, engaged in busy conversation and without even the slightest greeting.

It does not become clear in the story what political programme the great man adheres to, but it does not matter much either. His voters do not choose him on the basis of his ideas – they do not choose him on the basis of the way he proposes to solve their problems – but because they believe he embodies ‘the people’. His political programme can be very flexible therefore. And once he is elected, he no longer needs to acknowledge individual members of the people, or attempt to solve their problems.

Cover of the edition digitised by the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/

Quotations are from ‘Een groot man en een goed man’, on p. 14 of the third edition of Familie en kennissen (Schiedam, 1894)

Images are from the edition available in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.




Christmas reading: The Bottom Billion

This Christmas, I finally got around to reading a book that shook the world of international development almost ten years ago: The Bottom Billion, based on research by Paul Collier plus a host of collaborators.

Paul Collier argues that instead of seeing poverty as the problem of the 5 billion people who live in developing countries, that is, countries that are substantially poorer than for instance the United Stated, South Korea or Luxembourg, we should focus on the 1 billion people living in the poorest countries in the world.

The book offers a number of strategies that the international community can follow to tighten the growing gap between the 5 billion that will be ok, and the 1 billion than might not be. These strategies are designed to curb the existing problems the bottom-billion countries suffer from: unceasing military conflict; the possession of natural resources, such as oil, which profits are spoiling the reliability of their politicians and the soundness of their economical investments; the absence of infrastructures through which they can reach potential markets for their products; and bad economic policies and bad governance.

Much of the book’s research was convincing to me. An important limitation, however, seems to be its exclusive focus on countries-as-a-whole. Problems are identified as residing in national governments; solutions in the relations between those national governments (‘international relations’), and especially in interventions by the wealthiest states, e.g. the G8 or, nowadays, the G20.

To be fair, this book is aimed at readers living in those wealthy countries (referred to in the book as ‘we’). So the focus on international relations is not altogether surprising. Still, the book makes the assumption that as soon as the economies of the bottom-billion countries will take off, everyone in those countries will sufficiently benefit from this. In other words: as soon as state-level statistics will be all right, everyone in those states will be all right.

Collier leaves you curious about the dynamics within the countries at risk of ‘falling behind’. What happens between their citizens and their national and local governments? Can we feel reassured, once the national government of a bottom-billion country has secured a good tax income? How will the grown wealth of the country as a whole, reach all parts of the population? This bottom billion that we should be concerned about – is that the entire populations of the 58 (mostly small) countries that he mentions? Or is it, rather, large chunks of a far greater number of countries, including huge countries like India and Mexico?

One of the global game-changers over the past years has been the fact that wealth disparities between countries have for the first time since many centuries been falling. At the same time, however, inequality among citizens within countries has in many countries been on the rise since the 1980s, and especially since the crisis of 2008. For this reason, I would have liked to hear more about intra-national politics in Collier’s book.

Another question raised by the book’s emphasis on economic growth is the question whether the economy of a country can ever be big enough, or whether it will always need to grow further. Will the bottom-billion countries have to grow until the people in them will have reached a certain living standard? Or until they have reached a nominal income comparable to the wealthier countries? Will it help if the growth of the wealthy countries slows down (which has happened after 2008)? Or is the global aim everlasting growth? But then again, is this even theoretically possible, considering the limited amount of soil and other natural resources on the planet? Without giving his readers a rough idea about where these issues fit in with his development theory, some important parts of his story remain unconvincing.

Still, I was pleased to see that Collier’s ideas have not been standing still since the publication of The Bottom Billion. Whereas in the book he writes a little derisively about ‘sustainable’ or ‘pro-poor growth’, in his later popular publications he is not afraid to speak of ‘inclusive’ and even ‘sustainable growth’.dsc04609 One cruel irony that I cannot resist sharing: have a look at the banner which the publisher has placed right across the cover image of a child soldier.

Two critiques of Collier’s book that raise similar points as I have tried to do here, and which come from specialists in the field, are by A. Sumner and Michael Lipton.


Dutch blacking-up about to change

In ‘Racism in blue‘, I referred to an article I was writing for The Conversation. Here it is (slightly changed):

After decades of activism, the scales are finally tipping for the figure of ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch winter celebrations. Within a few years’ time, opinion has shifted from an utter failure to understand anti-Pete protests, to attempts at change. But how did the Dutch manage to be blind to the offensiveness of this type for so long? Is Dutch culture perhaps more racist than its progressive reputation suggests?

To start with the last question: yes, Dutch society is suffused with racism – as is western culture generally. Yet it is one of the fundamental characteristics of racism that it is perpetrated mostly unawares. Most racism – ‘everyday racism’, in the words of researcher Philomena Essed – takes the shape of casual remarks and unconscious judgments. In the Netherlands, one of the forms this everyday racism has taken in the twentieth century is Black Pete: ‘Zwarte Piet’.

Black Pete is part and parcel of the feast of Saint Nicholas, the country’s largest annual celebration. It elicits more eager anticipation and mobilises more public and commercial institutions than King’s Day and Liberation Day put together. The festival peaks on 5 December but officially starts halfway November already, and it takes possession of the shops as early as late summer. It is primarily aimed at children, and the memories it inspires are among the fondest childhood memories many (pink people?) have.

Black Pete’s position in these celebrations has never been fixed, but in the last few decades he seems to have been fulfilling the role of mediator. During the festivities, which have moral overtones of reward and punishment, it is Pete who mediates between the anxious child and the Godlike figure of Saint Nicholas. Whereas the latter evokes a degree of fear, Pete is approachable and loveable. This explains part of the attachment many Dutch feel towards Pete.


Photo by Nik Morris, ‘Zwarte Piet bij de Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’, 2012 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Clearly, however, depicting Black Pete is no innocent business. The figure has a dual ancestry as both servant to and antagonist of the Saint.

In many parts of Europe, Nicholas is accompanied by an anti-Saint or devil, making sure that both reward and punishment remain on the minds of their audiences. Sometimes, this devil carries a chain as a sign of his final submission to the power of good.

The chain returns gruesomely in the more recent tradition, beginning in the nineteenth century, that portrays Pete as an African man in the service of a European saint. Although dark servants in the Netherlands were not technically enslaved, slavery did very much exist in the overseas territories of the Dutch empire. It is this history that most activists point to as being silenced by the uncritical acceptance of Pete in his existing shape.

This shape is of course that of the ‘Sambo’. Whereas nineteenth-century depictions of Pete still show a ‘neutral’ man of African descent, in the twentieth century Pete merged with the international Sambo caricature, including red lips, golden earrings, and silly behaviour. The endurance of this figure always comes as a shock to Americans or Brits who thought of the Netherlands as a fair and open country. Anti-racism activists in the Netherlands have made grateful use of this cultural disjunction between the anglophone and the germanic world (blacking up also occurs in countries such as Belgium, Germany and Austria) by confronting their compatriots with the judgment of international experts, or even the British vox pop.

This approach, coupled with demonstrations and judicial action, seems to be having effect. Although there have been protests since the 1960s, these were never picked up by mainstream media or in national politics on the scale we are seeing now. This year, an unprecedented number of Dutch intellectuals and celebrities spoke out against the stereotype; national politicians have taken a stance; and sellers of seasonal sweets and decorations have deemed it wise to change their marketing strategy.

So why has Pete been able to mask as innocent for so long? Apart from the associations with childhood and friendship mentioned above, at least two factors play a role. Lacking a civil rights movement like the one in the US, including subsequent educational reforms, the Dutch have not learnt to recognise the racist Sambo character.

But various academic studies have noted a second factor: the cherished Dutch self-image of being an open and fair society. A large part of the Dutch public as well as the political establishment, including initially prime minister Mark Rutte, has responded to the criticism with outright denial. They refuse to let their fond memories be tinged with the hateful epithet of racism. Anger at ‘accusations’ of racism has been running so high that riot police had to be on stand-by for this year’s opening of the festive season.

A final note on where this tradition may be going. Because much of the critique has been focusing on blackface in the narrowest sense, there is now a tendency to erase representations of Pete as a brown-skinned man altogether – so not just (belittling) representations by pink actors. In children’s books, for instance, Pete is increasingly pale, and a large Dutch internet company has even completely eliminated Pete from its adverts, now only showing the old white saint.

These steps run the danger of replacing a racism of ridicule by a racism of marginalisation. Surely, it is not Pete’s colour which is racist, but the servile and subhuman features of Nicholas’s ‘cheerful little help’ that existing depictions have associated with that colour for so long.

This winter in racist Europe, I encountered a popular representation of a dark-skinned man, not as a slave or servant, but as King.


Three Kings celebrations in Alcalá, Spain, January 2016 (photo by the author, CC BY-NC-SA).

More on the ancestry of Black Pete can be found in Allison Blakely’s standard work Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society (Bloomington, 1993).


Racism in blue

I was writing an article about the way the fictional character called ‘Black Pete’, part of Dutch winter festivities, is changing under pressure from anti-racism activists, and I came across a cartoon that illustrates the present challenges very well.

Briefly, Black Pete’s role is to assist Saint Nicholas on his annual visit to the children of the Netherlands and Belgium. Anyone who likes to know a little more about this character can find it in this earlier post.

zoetnetpietenIt is a good thing Black Pete is changing. The concern I have, however, is with the way he is changing.

The central problem with the character as he has been portrayed over the past hundred years, is the association of a particular group in society – in this case people with African roots – with a set of negatively valued characteristics – in this case: silliness, clumsiness, docility, and interchangeability. To explain this last point: hundreds of figures are all called ‘Pete’, and if one is absent, another simply takes his place.

The association that chains this group of people to this set of characteristics has been fabricated by European colonisers, European-American plantation owners, and similar ‘white’ groups around the world to help justify slavery, colonial exploitation, and paternalistic re-education. Obviously, this chain needed to be broken.

At the moment however, this oppressive chain is still personified in the figure of Pete. Yet many people are attached to Pete, and would like to keep him as part of their winter festivities. So the challenge is to create a new Pete – which may also entail creating a new Saint Nicholas – in which this racist chain is broken. Therefore, one of these two things needs to change: either Pete’s identity as someone with African roots, or Pete’s presentation as a silly, clumsy, docile and interchangeable person.

Most producers of Pete & Nicholas plays and images in the Netherlands so far, have been opting for the former: Pete has been growing increasingly pale.

Yet I think we should seriously consider the second option (this is what I argued in an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw).

I recently came across an image that supports my argument. The image forms part of a Flemish cartoon, popular in the Netherlands:


from: Willy Vandersteen, De Gramme Huurling (1967-68)

In this cartoon, the main characters fly to Africa where they find a lazy, dirty, and bickering population with a defective grasp of language. At first, the locals try to cook the European heroes in their pots. But after liberating themselves, the Europeans build proper houses and schools for them, thereby risking their own lives. By the end of the story, the locals are grateful for their intervention. In other words: every racial stereotype present in Europe at the time is depicted, and apparently without irony. (Note that at the time of the cartoon, Belgium and the USA were saving what they could from their power and revenue in the Congo, where independence had been declared in 1960.)

But, you might say: the locals in this cartoon are not Black, they are blue! Yet does that remove the racism from this cartoon? Does removing the Black from Black Pete really solve the issue?


Turkish women freer ‘than we believe’

Ethnic prejudice can lead to hilarious ironies.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the orientalist ideas of many Europeans (and European Americans, Australians, etc.), and specifically about the idea that the Islamic world is characterised by its oppression of women. In that post, I quoted a seventeenth-century English visitor to Turkey who experienced an ironic reversal of this oppression: she was the one who was being seen as oppressed by her Turkish hosts.

In this post, we move forward two centuries, to 1842 Constantinople, or Istanbul. In that year, the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer made a remarkable solo journey to Jerusalem, one that she had to work hard to defend to worried compatriots at home. However, Pfeiffer herself was not devoid of prejudice. (And note that apart from religious contradictions, political conflict also played a role in Austrian preconceptions about the Near East: the Austrian and Ottoman empires had been waging war for centuries.) Let me illustrate this with the help of the following scene.


Adolf Dauthage, Ida Pfeiffer, 1858 (portraying a later journey)

In Constantinople, Ida Pfeiffer pays a visit to a mosque where she hopes to see a show of whirling dervishes (still popular among tourists today!). Waiting for the ceremony to start, she whiles away the time in the mosque’s garden together with several hundred other, more local women.

The women are sitting in small groups, chatting and eating pastry and dried fruits. Here, as in other parts of her travel account, Pfeiffer is fascinated by the cultural practices of the veil. She notes that in this dedicated women’s court, all have removed their white veil because the space is inaccessible to men. But what really strikes Pfeiffer is that

with divine zest, the women [a]re smoking a pipe of tobacco, and on the side they are slurping from a bowl of black coffee.

In this same period, ‘respectable’ women in Christian Europe were not expected to indulge in these pleasures, even if they were not officially forbidden.

The abolitionist Ida Pfeiffer is also wary about the existence of slavery in the Near East. In the same mosque garden, Pfeiffer assesses the relation between the ‘ladies […], their children and their nurses, who are all negro-slaves.’ Yet she finds that

the fate of the slave in the house of a Muslim is far from being so oppressive, as we believe.

The ‘we’, of course, speaks to the orientalism of her imagined readers in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Christian Europe.

Sitting in the garden, she observes how well-dressed the enslaved nurses are. They

sit among the rest of the party and munch away bravely with the rest of them. Only the colour of the face distinguishes mistress from servant.

The point I want to make is not about the living conditions of enslaved women in nineteenth-century Turkey – there is hardly any telling from this text, and since all she bases herself on is ‘the colour of the face’, Pfeiffer might even be completely misinterpreting the situation. Rather, it is about the traveller’s eye.

Clearly, Ida Pfeiffer is sufficiently capable to allow her observations to override her prejudices, and sufficiently brave to publish these observations in a book at home. Not all travellers are good at these things, and certainly no one manages to keep them up all the time (this includes Pfeiffer). But in this case, Pfeiffer saw the irony of encountering a set of women – the ladies in the garden -, in a country suspected of doing nothing but harm to women, that was in some respects freer than she could ever be at home.


Pfeiffer’s skirt looks like she can lower it to hide her trousers when required.

Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land can be read online. I have quoted from p. 28, with my own translation. A nineteenth-century English translation is available from the Gutenberg project.


Selling yourself while sticking to your guns

Katja Swider on how to get a scholarship

Katja Swider is a legal scholar of statelessness, about which I interviewed her previously. Her PhD is being funded by a national research council scholarship: the Dutch NWO Mozaïek. In this second half of our interview, I asked her how she won this competitive funding.

You have had to convince a panel of non-experts of the importance of your research. How did you explain your project to them?

It was a good exercise in reaching out to non-experts. The chair of the committee was a neuroscientist. The closest to my field was a sociologist with a side-interest in legal issues.

The procedure was a bit unfair to other disciplines. No grants were given in mathematics, physics or other abstract sciences, which you simply cannot connect to if you know nothing about them. So that is a problem with these interdisciplinary boards.

I received a lot of help in explaining my project. The university which I was affiliated with when applying offered dedicated training. There were mock-panels of professors from all kinds of disciplines, and an expert on presenting. The main lesson: ‘forget about what you actually want to investigate, and write a proposal which people who know nothing about the subject would get excited about’.

Also, it should not sound too ambitious. So no ‘I will cure cancer’. Your goal must sound doable: ‘I will explain how this works in a sample of people, and this knowledge will help find a cure for cancer.’

I was very conscious of selling a product; I was not thinking of my PhD at all. I had a lot of people read various proposals at various stages. and paid special attention to comments by non-lawyers: what disturbed them? What was not likeable?

Statelessness is easy to get excited about. It is about people, so you can show photos. True, the problems with statelessness are less tangible than, for example, poverty or sexual abuse; they are intrinsically legal, bureaucratic, and less human in nature. Still, they have very human causes and consequences, so these are what I focused on. I showed five newspaper pictures of stateless persons, and told their stories very briefly. That always ‘sticks’. It is a little sensational.

Some of my advisers wanted me to focus on one case, one story, but I wanted to show diversity, and I think it worked. Causes can be very different, and consequences too.

Selling at Damnoen Saduak market. Photo by Ppoonns, 2015.

The message was more or less that statelessness can happen to anyone. That makes it something people can relate to. I noticed that people are surprised how ‘close’ statelessness can be to them. There are the news stories about large stateless populations is Kuwait and Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic, but every now and then there is a rich expat couple who get a baby in Germany and the baby turns out stateless. And then again, you have the well-known cases of Roma etcetera. I wanted to show a bit of everything: some reaffirmation of the existing images of stateless people, but also something surprising that would make my audience think: ‘wait a minute, how come my kid is actually Dutch?’ or ‘Could that have happened to my child if I was married to someone else, or was abroad when giving birth, or … ?’

Apart from these things, I talked relatively much about myself. I hated that, but based on advice and experiments, I realised that this, too, sells the project. Ultimately, they are giving money to a person, and they want to have faith in that person. So I spoke about my networks and my experience in working with statelessness.

Mozaïek is a funny scholarship, because you have to be ‘allochthonous’ in order to receive it [roughly: a migrant or the child of a migrant), and because NWO’s definition of allochthonous has changed over the course of the years. It was only in the final year of the existence of the scholarship that I became eligible.

Still, it is a shame the programme is being discontinued, because it is an individual scholarship that you can take with you to the institute of your own choosing. It therefore offers PhD candidates a lot of independence vis-à-vis the universities that employ them.

So once you had that money secured, did your project change much over the course of the years?

Actually, the core did not change much since that scholarship proposal. I did tweak the research question, but that was more a matter of phrasing. Also, I originally proposed a neat symmetrical comparison of five countries. As it has turned out, one country is under the microscope, and a few others are studied in less depth. Next to this, I introduced an EU perspective, which I was not thinking of at the start.

I was always a big believer in not letting your research design limit you in what you are actually researching. I see a lot of my colleagues suffer because they have a specific chapter in their outline, but do not know how to fill it in. I think you should revise your design as often as is necessary for you. But as to myself, I have not done much of that. NWO could not complain about me doing something else with their money than what they have given it for!


‘I am not an idealist’

Katja Swider on Statelessness: An Interview

The Dutch news broadcaster NOS just reported that the number of stateless persons in the Netherlands has at least doubled over the last few years, now reaching a number of 5,000 or possibly even 10,000. Legal scholar Katja Swider is currently finalising a doctoral thesis on the judicial aspects of this very issue.

You once told me that statelessness can happen to anyone. So how do you become stateless?

Statelessness is a lack of nationality. First you have to understand that if a person does have a nationality, it is simply because somewhere in the world, a state has decided to consider them a national. The rules used by states to decide whom they consider their own nationals vary tremendously. For example, in Iran, fathers pass on their nationality to their children. Another example: the US claim everyone born on their territory as their national – this is the ius soli principle. The Netherlands do not. For them, anyone with at least one Dutch parent is Dutch, based on the ius sanguinis. Most states, however, have a combination of ius soli and ius sanguinis. The Netherlands, for instance, do grant nationality to the third generation born on their territory.

Most people do not know how they have acquired their nationality. They have had it from birth and take it for granted.

Yet some people are not considered as nationals by any state. Those are the world’s stateless.

You can become stateless in a variety of ways. You may have never acquired a nationality, for instance by being born in a ius sanguinis state to parents who hold a nationality of a ius soli state – a Canadian expat couple who have a baby in Germany would run this risk. Or by having a single mum in a state where only men can pass on their nationality to their children. Such gender discrimination exists in as many as twenty-six countries.

Later on in life, you can also still lose your nationality. States can withdraw it in their persecution of unwanted minorities, as happened to stateless Dominicans of Haitian decent. Or your country simply ceases to exist – like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – and you do not acquire the nationality of any of the newly formed states. In the future, we may have to add ecological causes to this list, for example if small island states sink below sea level and cease to exist.

Front of west-German travel document for stateless people, 1954. From Wikimedia commons.

Front of west-German travel document for stateless people, 1954. From Wikimedia commons.

So this is an important social issue. Is that also what attracted you as a researcher?

That was not the only reason. There is a technical story to tell here, and a personal story. To begin with the personal one: I have been a foreigner most of my life. I almost always lived in countries outside my nationality. As a child, this fascinated me. Not sociologically – I would integrate very fast and feel local almost anywhere – but in its legal, bureaucratic aspects. Going to strange places to be registered and renew documents… Being ‘Polish’ meant so much more when you were outside Poland! I felt the power papers have. I was always wondering what happens if you do not have them.

Then I made a friend at UCU who used to be stateless. I wrote a paper about her for a sociology course. My professor could not believe it was true. He actually checked my footnotes to make sure I did not misunderstand the legal situation. That is when I realised the issue was not well researched. A lot of things have changed since then. Now, statelessness is a hype in the United Nations and among NGOs.

So how about the technical story?

Statelessness is a fascinating legal concept. It is the product of the interaction between the nationality laws of different countries. The laws of a single state usually align: they make sense together. But statelessness arises on the boundaries between different national legal systems. Only if no single state claims a person as its national, this person is stateless. Consequently, every single jurisdiction in the world is responsible for every instance of statelessness.

The issue relates to the sovereignty of states. States need statelessness. But they are also threatened by it. They need it because sovereignty requires the freedom to determine the composition of their own population without having to coordinate this with other states. This inevitably leads to both statelessness and multiple nationality. Yet if a state contains too many ‘unclaimed’ people – stateless people – you have a problem, as a government. You cannot deport them, nor can you control them very well. This, too, can threaten sovereignty.

Then there is the interaction with migration, and the issue of human rights… Human rights are always lurking near statelessness, but we do not know where to place them. The right to a nationality? But what nationality? Is nationality perhaps a ‘right to have rights’? [a concept from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.] But perhaps we should also consider the right to be stateless?1

A great deal more thinking has to go into statelessness. Then, we might even come to understand better what statefullness means.

You said statelessness is a hype. Many of the policy and research initiatives on statelessness that we have, seem to be only a few years old. Can we conclude that statelessness is a new problem?

No, it has been around for as long as nationalities have existed. And then again, according to people like Hobbes and Locke, statelessness is our natural state: when you go back in time far enough, you will find everyone to be stateless.

After the Second World War, the United Nations began to develop human-rights conventions, inspired by the Holocaust. In fascist Europe, Jews were both refugee and stateless. At first therefore, these two problems were not distinguished. They are merged for instance in the works of Hannah Arendt, one of the best-known thinkers on statelessness.

Then came the realisation that the two issues are actually quite distinct, from a legal point of view. It was decided that refugeehood was the more urgent issue. It was an emergency, a global disaster that had to be addressed there and then. So the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted in 1951, and a UN agency established to supervise its implementation: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The two UN statelessness conventions were adopted in 1954 and 1961, respectively, but almost nothing was done with them at that time. Statelessness was thought to be less related to the Second World War: a thing that had always been there and that should be dealt with at some point in the future. We now have a strong lobby for the rights of refugees, and solid legal mechanisms, which is very important, but the world also needs to deal with statelessness. In terms of human impact and legal complexity it is not much smaller than the refugee issue.

Sometime in the 1990s, the UNHCR also received a mandate over statelessness. I think this has created the hype. It took them about ten years to develop some expertise, to open jobs for people to work precisely on statelessness, and then the hidden problems were discovered.

So what might help stateless people in the short term?

To start with, it would help if their statelessness were recognised and documented. Having a piece of paper that says you are stateless is definitely not the end of your trouble, but it starts the conversation. It helps protect you against arbitrary deportation, for instance, and you may be better able to arrange a nationality for your children. But even this mere acknowledgement of your statelessness is not an option in most countries.

A wider awareness that statelessness is a legal issue, would also be good. Being stateless does not say anything about your social position or your political views. Still, a lot of suspicion surrounds stateless persons: that they are dangerous, or disloyal to their community. Yet stateless people often feel very much part of a nation. Their statelessness may only surface as they are trying to arrange some ‘silly’ paperwork. Even then, they often feel that a problem has to do with their ‘papers’, not their national belonging.

People know so little about statelessness, and that can really hurt affected individuals. At a conference, one stateless woman said that border crossings are hell because of the amount of explaining she needs to do. Once, when the question of nationality arose, she said she was stateless, whereupon a border guard honestly asked: ‘Where is that?’

What major legal changes or mentality shifts do you feel are needed in the long term? What would your ideal world look like?

I am not an idealist. My opinion is that the world is bad. People are bad, we cannot do anarchism, and we fail at communism. All great ideas just do not work because we cannot manage to be nice to each other. So I think that whatever we do, there will be a division between them and us; some will be rich, and others will be poor. In my ideal world, there is an awareness of this inherent injustice. People who are privileged feel guilty about that privilege. When a foreigner is denied access, this is done with the feeling ‘I need to do this in order to keep my society rich and prosperous’, and not with the feeling ‘I have a moral right to do it’.

1 Katja’s blogs for the European Network on Statelessness are heartily recommended: www.statelessness.eu/search/node/swider. In the contribution ‘States as a root cause of statelessness’, Katja explains some of the thoughts that go into her doctoral thesis to a non-specialist audience.

This interview first appeared in Post Magazine (winter 2015), 9-12.