Collectively breaking down a black box, one story at a time
After months of feeling blocked from writing about statelessness in a blogpost in which I wanted to share the results of a year-long research on the topic, I stopped trying to fight the block. Instead, I made it the starting point and asked myself: What makes writing about statelessness so difficult? Words started to flow and allowed me to realize why the Statefree community is so important: it works against the isolation, arbitrariness and lack of information produced by state bureaucracies by collectively shedding light on all the answers that are still missing.
My research on statelessness in Germany started in 2019, when I spent the summer in Berlin interviewing stateless people about their experiences. I first interviewed Palestinians from Jordan and Syria, as well as Kurds from Iran and Iraq. Until I had a conversation with a young woman who did not talk about herself as ‘stateless’, but as being ‘unclear’. German bureaucrats insisted that her nationality – and consequently identity – was ‘unclear’, even though she was born in Germany and never lived anywhere else. They told her to figure out ‘where she was from’, eventually forcing her to find out who her biological father was. The violence of the state and its impact on a single life became evident in all its force. Her experiences and life story urged new questions: How could the German state insist that the identity of someone who had lived her whole life in Germany was ‘unclear’? And how could the state force her to contact her biological father who had been absent from her life until then, claiming that this blood tie would bring clarity about who she was?
I was puzzled, and trying to understand what this ‘unclear nationality’ is, I typed it into google. I couldn’t find much information, but the search result that came closest to an answer was a forum entry addressing the question: How can I change my XXX to XXA? ‘XXX’ and ‘XXA’: three small letters written in the nationality field of the documents of those people who don’t have a recognized nationality in Germany. And the difference? An ‘XXX’ stands for an ‘unclear nationality’, an ‘XXA’ for being stateless. And that difference, as I came to understand through my research, is quite fundamental: it means the difference between being stuck in a limbo or having access to rights. The stateless status means being recognized as legally stateless by the German state. It is a category that gives access to rights such as a travel document for stateless people and the right to naturalization after six years. With an ‘unclear nationality’, however, this is not the case. Instead, you might be able to get a travel document for foreigners, which is not a right but at the discretion of the immigration office. You will also not be able to get German citizenship through naturalization – no matter how long you’ve lived there, no matter how much you fulfil all other requirements, no matter how rooted your life in Germany is. This has been administrative practice before, but since the summer of 2019 it is also written down in German nationality law.
No wonder people were trying to figure out how to change their status from ‘unclear’ to ‘stateless’, to change that last ‘X’ to an ‘A’ on their documents. One of the forum comments was a year old and, hoping his situation had already been resolved, I left a small comment with my email address in case he was willing to share his experience with me. I directly got an answer – but not only that. I’m still getting emails from people with the same question: How do I change my ‘XXX’ to ‘XXA’ on my document? How can I leave that limbo the German bureaucratic system has put me and my family in?
In the many conversations that followed, what struck me most was the apparent arbitrariness in how state institutions dealt with recording matters of statelessness. This became particularly evident through the experiences of Palestinian Refugees from Syria, who were sometimes recorded as stateless, other times with an unclear nationality. Siblings were sometimes recorded with different nationality status (some with XXX, others with XXA). Sometimes the BAMF (the German state institution responsible for asylum procedures) recorded a person as stateless, while the immigration office would afterwards change their nationality to ‘unclear’. Once the mere change of residence led to a change of nationality status: the new immigration office changed the person’s nationality status from ‘unclear’ to ‘stateless’. Making sense of that change, the person explained: ‘It was simply luck.’
In the weeks of research and the many conversations with people affected by statelessness that followed, the reference to luck came up repeatedly. It was joined by the experience of ‘only getting gut feelings, never real answers’ from the immigration office, as well as the struggle of finding reliable information on how to navigate one’s situation of statelessness. Listening to the different stories, I tried to connect dots and identify a pattern that could explain the reasons for the different outcomes. I was searching for a legal and administrative logic that I, as a researcher, would be able to pin down and share with others. Yet, whenever I thought I was getting closer to such clarity, I encountered a new case which contradicted the previous ones. Frustration and a sense of failure started to creep in.
Until slowly I came to realize that it was not me who was at fault, that my failure to decipher a clear administrative procedure was not due to my lack of skills as a researcher. I realized that I had been ascribing predictability, rationality and transparency onto a system that was inherently arbitrary. In Germany, there is neither a clear procedure nor specific institution responsible for identifying cases of statelessness. As a result, gut feelings, misinformation and unpredictability form the background tune to which people affected by statelessness have to move.
This understanding gained further shape through my encounter with Christiana, the founder and powerful force behind Statefree. Our encounter offered me a new language for making sense of how statelessness comes to matter in people’s lives. She described her experience of statelessness as a constant shadow boxing, using the image of a black box to explain the difficulty of understanding and navigating German bureaucracy as a person affected by statelessness.
Given this black box character, the Statefree platform would not – and could not – be a place with all the answers. Instead, it would become a place for all the things that are still waiting for an answer; a place where the absence of answers would be made present. To make all the mess and lack of information apparent. What seemed little at first, I then realized was a powerful means of taking back agency, allowing orientation in such a bureaucratic maze. Shedding light on this black box collectively, one story – of (bad) luck, arbitrariness, but also hope – at a time.