From 27 November to 3 December, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, presents Nowhere People UK, a photographic study of stateless people by Greg Constantine, at London’s Saatchi Gallery.
In the first exhibition to document statelessness people in the UK, photographer Greg Constantine provides a glimpse into the hidden lives of the people living in the margins of society, denied of basic rights that citizens take for granted.
One of the exhibition’s ‘nowhere people’ is 27 year-old Maya, who was one of the tens of thousands of Kurdish children born in Syria whose birth was unregistered by authorities. Her family was detained in the UK after their asylum claim was rejected, but Maya has since been granted British nationality.
“Being stateless is not a choice,” says Maya. “You are born that way… It is something that someone bigger, a government or an authority, has deprived you of so they have taken that away from you… Stateless people have a lot more to prove. It is so much more onerous to explain who they are and to provide evidence, even though the evidence itself doesn’t exist. It’s the whole fact that you don’t exist. You are not seen as a person or part of any country.
“I definitely felt invisible. In particular because I could never say, ‘I’m Syrian’ or ‘I’m British’… I felt like I didn’t exist because I was not recognised anywhere, not even in the UK, where we came for protection, and they were not willing to recognise us either. So it did feel like we were not wanted anywhere. We were between two different countries and neither wanted us.”
Nationality may be a universal human right, but at least 10 million people around the world live without it. Being stateless can leave victims with no sense of identity, and little or no voice. Many are unable to register the births of their children, go to school, work legally, travel freely, own property or obtain vital documents like passports. Unable to return, and lacking legal status, many find themselves isolated and live in fear of being detained.
Another of Constantine’s subjects is Peter, who fled political unrest in Zimbabwe ten years ago. His asylum claims were rejected and he spent almost 20 months in immigration detention, unable to be returned because the Embassy of Zimbabwe refused to recognise him as a citizen. He explains:
“For those who have no citizenship, they are in a limbo, because no one wants to believe them. The authorities don’t want to believe them because they say, ‘How can you say you are somebody who doesn’t have proof where he comes from?’ The onus is on you to prove where you are from. You must be from somewhere! But even though you are telling them where you are from, they don’t accept you… You just don’t know where to turn to. You’re like in a river and have been left to float about. There is literally nowhere. You are going nowhere.”
UNHCR’s Representative to the UK Gonzalo Vargas Llosa said: “Greg Constantine’s important work shines a spotlight on this hidden human rights issue. For people without a nationality, life is on hold. The UK was one of the first countries to establish a procedure to identify stateless persons. This is an important achievement. However, it is clear that more needs to be done in the UK and abroad to ensure that stateless people are given the protection they desperately need.”