Ghost Citizens: Researching the Legal Limbo of Stateless Persons

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“Statelessness” is a status whereby people have no citizenship whatsoever. They don’t belong to any country whatsoever in the world and they are really in a legal limbo. They don’t have a home, they’re legally homeless, they have no legal identity and aren’t able to access things like homes, education, health care, employment, and basic things like even getting a cell phone  

My name is Jamie Chai Yun Liew. I’m a Professor at the Common Law section at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. My primary focus of research is on Immigration and Refugee Law but more recently has been focusing on the area of statelessness.   

The inspiration behind my research was my father. He was born stateless in a country that did not give citizenship to Chinese people when they are born within the territory of that country. My father’s one of the very lucky people who was able to migrate to Canada at a time where he could come as an economic migrant and his story has led me to try to understand why is it that statelessness still exists many years later.  

Statelessness is a phenomenon that persists in every country in the world and I think it’s really important to study because most of the population that is stateless don’t want to be identified by state governments or by authorities for fear of being detained, deported to countries that they’ve never been to, and one of the reasons why I’m so fascinated by this phenomena is because it’s often linked with Immigration Refugee Law which is my primary area of research. However, in my research I uncovered the fact that many people who are stateless, so a subset of stateless people, are actually within the country of their birth within a state that they have deep connections, genuine ties and bonds with, and despite having these connections and ties, they’re treated as foreigners in the state that they consider their own. It makes me question about what is it what does it mean to be a member of our community, how do people qualify for citizenship, why is it important for us to look at the qualities and requirements by which people obtain citizenship and what are the processes and the barriers and the troubles that they encounter in doing so? 

I turned to my mother’s homeland which is Malaysia. I spent four months there in 2018 and spoke to 45 people, around 19 of which were stateless persons themselves or their family members. Some of the stateless persons were children so I interviewed their parents. I interviewed lawyers, paralegals, academics, and NGO representatives as well. There you know I discovered that you know whilst the citizenship law on its face would allow many of these stateless people to obtain citizenship, they were for many reasons not obtaining it.  

One of the most, I would say out of body experiences I had during my field work in Malaysia was I was interviewing a lawyer and the lawyer looked at my name and said I need to show you something and she brought out a file that had my exact last name spelled exactly the same way l-i-e-w. I just looked at her and said you know my own father was stateless before he migrated to Canada, she did not know that and she said well I wanted to show you this because it really hits close to home and I told her I said well if my father had not migrated, had not been lucky enough to been accepted from Canada that I would probably have my own name on a legal file back in Southeast Asia. So I think about that situation quite often about how, you know, a very life-changing decision could have changed my life fundamentally but that there are still people who I share a kinship with in terms of familial connection and name, are still struggling and in these particular cases they often children who can’t go to school and really don’t have the opportunities for example that I did to become a law professor for example.  

“Dandelion” is my debut novel; it was written during the time that I was researching on statelessness and conducting field research. My debut novel was a way for me to explore the emotions I felt listening to all of these stories and paying homage to some of the common themes and threads that I heard from people about what it felt like to be stateless, what it did to one’s understanding of their own identity and sense of belonging in a community.  

So, you know my current academic book that’s coming out called “Ghost Citizens” you know the title itself would not have come about had I not written “Dandelion” at the same time. I would shift between the two and they would feed each other quite a bit. And especially the folktale motifs, the ideas of motherhood, the feminist tropes about what a good mother is, the idea of foreignness and belonging. All of these themes are very much present in both the academic writing and the fiction writing and they both fueled each other I would say.  

You know without that kind of ability to journal or to explore creatively different themes I was thinking of, I don’t know if I would have been able to come up with some of the writing that I was able to produce for the academic research side of things. So, it’s a very, I would say it was a very symbiotic process to write creatively and to write academically and to weave the research in and potentially reach the public, that might not necessarily read my academic writing on the subject.   

There are millions of stateless people in the world – people who are not recognized as citizens in any country whatsoever. Long considered an issue tied intricately with migration, Professor Jamie Liew’s research on statelessness is breaking new ground, exploring the legal limbo of a subset of stateless people who are legally homeless despite strong ties to a distinct place they call home.

Field research on statelessness

Professor Liew is interested in a specific category of stateless persons that she has dubbed “ghost citizens”. Ghost citizens are stateless people who claim to be living in their “own” or home country, yet who are not recognized as citizens by that country. These people may have deep and meaningful ties to this “home” country — they may have family that has lived there for many generations, children or parents who are born there, or they may be employed in that country. What they lack is any form of legal identity to anchor them to the place they consider to be their home. 

Fascinated by the differential treatment stateless people receive as compared with refugees, Professor Liew has conducted field-defining research to clarify why the international community has not addressed statelessness with the same rigour as refugee protection. Using socio-legal, ethnographic, critical race and feminist methodologies and theories, she takes particular care to privilege the perspectives of stateless and former stateless persons, as well as their families and their advocates. Professor Liew’s interest in this area was borne out of personal experience. Her own parents immigrated to Canada from Brunei, and her father was not granted citizenship when he was born in Brunei, leaving him stateless. This inspired her to undertake the first in-depth case study of the historical and institutional roots of statelessness in Malaysia.

Ghost Citizens : studying the systems that confer or deny citizenship

Earlier this year, Professor Liew published Ghost Citizens: Decolonial Apparitions of Stateless, Foreign and Wayward Figures in Law (Fernwood Publishing), which examines the legal and administrative systems that post-colonial states have inherited and continue to use in conferring and denying citizenship. The book sheds light on how people are made stateless at government offices, registrars and counters where people apply for identification cards and citizenship. The book also explores the bargains racial minorities made in nascent Malaysia and how those bargains led to constitutional and legal frameworks that reproduce differentiated and hierarchical notions of citizenship. This work provides a new socio-legal lens on the issue, exposing how interactions and encounters with government bureaucrats must be examined alongside any scholarship that calls for legal reform. 

Ghost Citizens is in fact the second book Professor Liew has published on statelessness, In 2022 she published her first novel, Dandelion (Arsenal Pulp Press), which she wrote as she was doing her field research as a way of exploring the emotions she felt as she uncovered stories of statelessness. In the novel, a new mother becomes obsessed with uncovering the mystery of her own mother’s disappearance. In a quest for answers, she journeys from a small British Columbia mining town to Southeast Asia, following in her mother’s footsteps, all the while re-examining her sense of belonging. This piece of literary fiction incorporates socio-legal, critical race and feminist concepts within the character and plot arcs to explore the law’s role in shaping ideas on nation building, community and constructing a person’s racial and citizenship identity.  

While there are shared details between the author and the protagonist, the novel is not autobiographical, but is rather inspired by Professor Liew’s deep consideration of the effects of statelessness, the experiences of immigrants, and the elusiveness of a sense of belonging. The manuscript for Dandelion won the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, Jim Wong-Chu Emerging Writers’ Award, which led to its publication with Arsenal Pulp Press. Since its publication in April 2022, Professor Liew was longlisted on CBC Canada Reads 2023 and the book has been widely featured in print, online, and in radio and television media. 

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Ultimately, Professor Liew’s work demonstrates that people, themselves, know best who they are and that we can learn a lot from listening to them, rather than entrusting the idea of “belonging” solely to States. Professor Liew was recently invited to discuss statelessness, ghost citizens and her publications with Nahlah Ayed on CBC Radio’s IdeasListen to the full episode here. 

References and useful links
About the researcher

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