November 30, 2017 / 11:17 AM / a year ago

Saatchi show spotlights hidden tragedy of Britain's 'Nowhere People'

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The man in the photo leans against a derelict wall, his head down, his face obscured. He looks crushed and alone.

“Being stateless is not a choice. You are born that way. You have no choice over that. It is something that someone bigger, a government or an authority, has deprived you of so they have taken that away from you. I was born stateless. 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.\n\n“I definitely felt invisible. In particular because I could never say, ‘I’m Syrian’ or ‘I’m British.’ I only had my patriotism for being a Kurd but that in itself is an invisible issue because people don’t know about the Kurdish cause. 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.” ; An unknown number of stateless people from around the world make their way to the UK but find themselves stranded in the UK after being denied recognition from their embassies and having their asylum claims rejected by UK authorities.

The image is part of a show at London’s prestigious Saatchi Gallery called “Nowhere People UK” – the first exhibition to focus on Britain’s invisible stateless people.

Sometimes referred to as “legal ghosts”, stateless people are not recognized as nationals by any country. They live in the shadows, deprived of basic rights most people take for granted.

“What for me was so eye-opening was the sheer sense of rejection and isolation that stateless people in the UK expressed to me,” said American photographer Greg Constantine.

“And how paralyzing that feeling was for them in their day to day lives.”

Charity Asylum Aid estimates several thousand stateless people are living in Britain, often at risk of destitution, exploitation and prolonged detention.

Some were born in countries that do not recognize them as nationals, others have fled war or rights abuses, or are victims of trafficking.

Constantine has spent a decade photographing stateless communities around the world including the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Roma in Europe and the Bidoon in Kuwait.

But he said the isolation experienced by stateless people in Britain was unlike anything he had seen before.

Constantine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he was particularly moved by a bright young Bidoon man who was keen to study and have a career.

“I’m trying to apply for work but I’m not allowed,” the man says in a caption accompanying a photo of his shadow. “I want to go to university ... but I’m not allowed. I’ve tried to get a driver’s license, but I’m not allowed.”

The man said he had spent years in limbo in Britain, which has refused him asylum but cannot deport him because Kuwait has rejected him as a citizen.

“It is like a spider web,” he added. “I am trapped and any move I make, I get stuck even more.”


Constantine said most of the stateless people he met had been detained, sometimes multiple times. One man had spent three and a half years locked up.

Others were homeless - one had ended up living in a forest.

None of the people photographed was willing to give their real name and only two allowed their faces to be fully shown.

“The very fact they did not want to have their identities revealed (shows) the repercussions statelessness has on an individual,” Constantine said.

One photo features a 27-year-old Kurdish woman born in Syria, who asked to be called Maya.

“You are not seen as a person,” said Maya, who has since been granted British nationality. “I felt like I didn’t exist because I was not recognized anywhere.”

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has launched an ambitious campaign to end the plight of some 10 million stateless people worldwide by 2024.

Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, the UNHCR’s representative in Britain, said Constantine’s photographs shone an important spotlight on a human rights issue that remains hidden.

“For people without a nationality, life is on hold,” he said.

Britain is one of only a handful of countries to have set up a procedure to identify stateless people, and provide them with a route to legal residency.

But Asylum Aid said there was a backlog of applications, and even those recognized as stateless faced difficulties acquiring British citizenship.

Originally from Zimbabwe, this man fled during the country's political unrest. He arrived in the UK ten years ago but his asylum claims have all been rejected. He has spent almost 20 months in immigration detention. A deportation order was initiated and he signed a voluntary return, but the Zimbabwe Embassy refused to recognise him as a citizen, leaving him stranded in the UK. \n\n“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. ; An unknown number of stateless people from around the world make their way to the UK but find themselves stranded in the UK after being denied recognition from their embassies and having their asylum claims rejected by UK authorities.

Constantine said one of the most tragic aspects of statelessness was the way it destroyed a person’s self-worth.

One man pictured leaning against a grill gate describes his feelings of entrapment as life passes him by.

“I’m like a bird in a cage,” he says. “All I can do is watch.”

Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit to see more stories.

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