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.


Carriages in the railway age

The last few weeks, I have been looking at weird objects in Britain’s National Railway Museum. There were games. There were hot-water bottles. There were candle-holders that you could take with you on the train, pin onto the fabric of your chair, and light up right there. And before I make it sound like too much of a holiday (though it was, in a way), there were also lots of books to read.

Photo by Oliver Betts.

Photo by Oliver Betts.

All this because we are trying to find out more about travellers’ experiences, from the beginnings of our railway system in the 1820s until now.

My host Dr Oli Betts already published an entertaining piece about our project. In it, he points out how much people in the early days had to get used to the railways.

Yet the other side of the story is equally interesting. Existing habits of travel continued to exist. The railways were embedded into older forms of travel.

This is illustrated by another image from Wallis’s ‘Locomotive Game’ of Railroad Adventures, the game Oli Betts describes in his blog post:


Photo by the author (with my apologies for the low image quality. Should have used a tripod).

In the early decades of passenger trains, it was not unusual for the body of a old-fashioned carriage, or even an entire carriage with wheels and all, to be mounted onto a railway carriage. It does not look very safe, but it provided you with the comfort, privacy and respectable appearance of your own carriage and staff. (The Eurotunnel Shuttle has started to do the same again in the twentieth century, this time with automobiles.)

Another example. A matchbox, sold as part of a portable railway reading lamp:


Photo by the author.

But why does this railway accessory depict a coach-and-four? An expression of nostalgia, perhaps? Anti-railway sentiment? A little bit like the acme of wedding chic nowadays is to hire an old timer with chauffeur, or indeed a horse-drawn landau?

That doesn’t quite explain it. The coach passengers are dressed in clothes contemporary to the production of the railway lamp, not pre-railway clothes. If the matchbox was indeed designed specifically to be included in this railway lamp set, then the message must be one of integration. Coaches were not overrun by the railways, but very much held their own, especially on the shorter distance. Trains and coaches coexisted peacefully in the travel imagination. The message conveyed to the user of the reading lamp was that with rail and road transport combined, you could come a long way.

If we do think there is also a degree of nostalgia or romanticism in the image, it is a longing for the country-side; and possibly a yearning for more private forms of transport that did not depend on great quantities of fellow users making the same journey: one thing railway and pre-railway travellers both detested.

More on this theme in several forthcoming articles…


Dead Russian visits London

I find it impossible sometimes not to view the historical period I investigate through the lens of current affairs. The current debates about the place of Britain in the world, and foreigners’ place in Britain, inevitably resonate in my research, which is about European travel in the nineteenth century.

Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

Goncharov’s ship on which he circumnavigated the world: Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the moment, I am reading Ivan Goncharov’s report of his journey around the world in the 1850s. He writes a lot about his experiences in the south of England. His observations on the languages spoken by the English still apply today. To understand the following, it is good to know that French was the language spoken throughout Europe by travellers, diplomats, merchants and other people who wanted to communicate across borders. French, not English, was the European lingua franca. And yet, Goncharov writes:

everyone who wants to go to England must willy-nilly acquaint himself [with the English language]: whoever doesn’t know it, better not go to England. Here, like something rare, they hang a sign saying, in large letters, Ici on parle français.

Like a nineteenth-century equivalent of the signs you see on hotels in some countries nowadays – ‘we speak your language’, touristic shops and hotels in Goncharov’s London could distinguish themselves by speaking the common European language. Speaking this common language was not self-understood, let alone speaking further languages.

The isolationist views that many Britons today hold are still related to the low proportion of people who understand a foreign language. To make things worse, if the UK leaves the EU it may lose access to the Erasmus programme which allows European students to spend a semester abroad and improve their linguistic skills. If we don’t pay attention, Goncharov’s observation might therefore only win in poignancy the coming years.

The reason for both those isolationist views and the relative lack of interest in foreign languages has a lot to do with the economic history of Britain. A second episode in Goncharov’s visit sheds light on this. This episode, too, may sound familiar to travellers of the present day. As Goncharov landed in England, the famous Duke of Wellington had just died. He had fought Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo and in terms of popularity could be termed the Churchill of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly therefore, Wellington merchandise was selling like hot cakes. Goncharov could not resist buying something, and so he bought

a medallion of some sort from a boy. I wanted to give him fourpence for it, but by mistake I took from my purse a ten-kopeck piece. The little boy caught up with me, threw the money at my back, screaming like a stuck pig: “No use, no use!”

Paying euro-cents instead of pennies: it is a mistake I have made myself many a time when returning to Britain after a short trip abroad… and every time there was the suspicion with the person I was paying, that I was trying to play a nasty trick on them. The reason they thought so, was of course that the British economy and the pound sterling are among the strongest of the world. And they were so in Goncharov’s days as well as our own. For instance, because of their relative wealth, the British elite of the nineteenth century could easily travel around Europe and settle down cheaply in Italy or Spain.

However, it will depend on the coming British-European negotiations for the movement of people and goods, and on the strength of British industry, whether this comfortable position will stay the same. Ironically, the very possibility to keep an isolationist outlook will depend on the intercultural communication skills of British negotiators


I have quoted from Klaus Goetze’s (!) English translation of The Frigate Pallada with St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1987), pp. 32 and 37.


How the tsars started a Mexican wave

The Mexican wave: seemingly bound up with the world of modern sports and television, my work as a travel historian has recently brought me face to face with a much older instance of this clever bit of mass coordination.

Souffreau, stadium audience, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

Bram Souffreau, a stadium audience (photographed in 2007). Wikimedia Commons.

The past few weeks of UEFA competition have seen the Mexican wave do its round of the stadiums again. This year, the UEFA even turned the wave into a symbol for respectful football. Such spectacles of human coordination always do nicely on a TV screen. It seems indeed that you need the technology, the crowds, and the entertainment focus of modern televised sports for the wave to work at all. And so, according to popular lore (and according to the Oxford English Dictionary), human waves started to be observed at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Others have seen the phenomenon slightly earlier, in North-American college football, but this does not alter the story much. However, no one, to my knowledge, has as yet dug up the much deeper, much older history of the Mexican Wave.

That history goes back at least to the early nineteenth century, and I recently caught a glimpse of it in the most unlikely of places: in a manuscript that I was examining in the stables of a quiet country house which used to belong to one of the wealthiest and most reclusive aristocrats of the Low Countries.

 Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst

Jean-Baptiste Van der Hulst, Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam (oil on canvas, 1829)

Her name was Marie Cornélie van Wassenaer Obdam. She preferred spending time on her estate, eschewed most forms of social entertainment except music, and died long before the invention of association football and newsreels. So how did she come to write about the Mexican wave?

It happened on a journey in 1825, though not to Mexico. Marie Cornélie accompanied a Dutch princely delegation on a state visit to the tsars’ court in Saint Petersburg. In Russia, she was shown around several charitable institutions funded by the tsarina, where the pupils demonstrated their skill and industry. One such visit ended in an enormous, colonnaded hall where all the pupils had gathered to present themselves:

at our approach, the double doors swung open and the young persons, arranged by class, the little ones in front, from both sides of the hall dropped a curtsy together, like ears swaying in a field of wheat. it was not without some awkwardness that I returned this greeting, aware of all the eyes that were fixed on us at that moment.

Evidently, the visual pleasure of this coordinated wave movement, performed by human beings, was already realized one and a half century before the 1986 waves that we normally read about. But equally evident are the differences that distinguish the Russian wave as seen by Marie Cornélie in 1825, from the Mexican waves seen in stadiums today.

In the first place, the context of her Russian wave was not sports, but education. Secondly, the milieu in which it took place was not a broadly popular one, but consisted of aristocratic ladies.

Yet most importantly, the wave Marie Cornélie was treated to, was not a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm. It had been carefully orchestrated by the teachers of the educational institution she was visiting. It aimed to show the school’s success in raising well-behaved, disciplined young ladies.

In that sense, the wave was akin to a military parade, although it wore a more friendly and welcoming face. This welcoming face played a role in a second aim we can expect the institution’s directors to have had: to persuade their wealthy visitors to leave a donation. We could therefore call this wave of 1825 a ‘pr wave’, or a charity wave.

That brings us back to the UEFA, and their request to share waves on twitter for their Respect Campaign. So far, this request has mostly attracted rehearsed bits of action. But, seeing that the wave may be older than we thought, has it not changed for the better by abolishing the separation between audience and spectacle that made Marie Cornélie feel awkward two centuries years ago?

Is what makes it so wonderful today not the very fact that it springs from a spontaneous decision by spectators to make themselves part of the spectacle, by bursting forth from a ‘curtsied’ position into full-body swing?

The original diaries, in French, of Marie Cornélie’s journey are property of A. Graf Solms Sonnenwalde. A Dutch-language edition has been prepared by Aafke Brunt as Marie Cornélie. Dagboek van haar reis naar het hof van Sint-Petersburg 1824-1825 (Amsterdam, 2003).

An earlier version of this post appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters.


Britain sacked Britain

In my last post, just before I left on a short journey, I mentioned the financial support many regions in the UK receive from the EU. Unfortunately, on 23 June many of those same regions voted to leave the EU. One of them is the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. 51% of its voters wanted to leave the EU.

I happened to be on the Isle of Anglesey last week. As a tourist. Now tourism drives a major part of the Welsh economy: about 10% of jobs depend on it. A good reason to take care of the tourism sector, you might think. But the majority of Welsh voters decided otherwise. Looking for things to do on Anglesey last week, here are some of the things I found:







These leaflets have acquired a tragic note since 23 June. The blue flag with the yellow stars is ubiquitous, indicating support from everything from the European Fund for Rural Development to the European Fisheries Fund, and of course the Fund for Regional Development.

As I was turning the leaflet carousel, I imagined the shock that must have been felt in Wales on Friday the 24th with those people who spent sweat and tears to make these places happen. Which of them will we still be able to visit in three years’ time?


Will Britain sack Britain?

Two days to go before the referendum that will decide whether Britain and Northern Ireland stay inside the EU.

It is hard to think about anything else these days. It’s in the news, it’s in people’s conversations. We used to laugh about the idea of a Brexit, but the atmosphere has turned more vicious and you can see people getting scared, not least those British citizens who want to stay in.

What’s more, the English flag is everywhere. Sure, the UEFA football championship is upon us as well (I wonder, do the same Britons want to leave the UEFA, too?). But the usual football flags have taken on a more ominous meaning now, especially since the murder of Jo Cox.

A new park and flood protection in the north of England, created with financial support of the EU.


Most of the Brits wanting to leave the EU are motivated by xenophobia and nostalgia. They have not reached their verdict after weighing the economic and political pros and cons of EU membership. No, they want to prove that Britain can still do it on its own – that’s the nostalgic part, and it even includes talk of the nineteenth-century empire –  and they want foreigners to disappear.

But of course, foreigners won’t disappear if the UK is no longer part of the EU. For one thing, more non-EU-citizens than EU-citizens live in the UK. (Many leave-campaigners seem to think that abolishing the EU will somehow also solve the violence in Syria and East Africa and economic destitution worldwide.) Secondly, the agreements that the UK will negotiate with the EU if it leaves, will probably not force out those already living in the UK. Those with a job will even be asked to stay. Whether they will want to stay, is a different issue.

As a friend remarked this morning: if Brexit becomes reality, how will all those uninformed ‘leave’-voters react, over the coming weeks and months, when they notice that the migrants are still here? The referendum campaign has temporarily channelled xenophobic sentiments, but also stimulated them. Will the resulting anger be directed at politicians who made fantastic promises? Or will it be the same old same old?

Fortunately, I am finding that my local friends, colleagues, and students show no inclination of wanting to leave the European Union. Fortunately for international understanding, but also fortunately for the people of UK. Especially in the north of the country, jobs, pensions, health and well-being may have more to fear from London than from Brussels.

A new park and flood defence in the north of England, realised with financial support from the EU (photos by author).