Lives unmeasured

How does one measure out their life in coffee spoons that do not exist at all? This sort of thing comes along every few years but, at the moment, this corresponds well with my recent post about New York’s poor and, further back, about the globally-increasing trend in refugees.

Many of these stateless people are among the world’s poorest; all are the most disenfranchised. Without citizenship, they often have no right to schooling, health care or property ownership. Nor may they vote, or travel outside their countries – even, in some cases, the towns – where they live.

They are stateless for many reasons – migration, refugee flight, racial or ethnic exclusion, the quirks of history – but taken together, these noncitizens, according to one report, “are among the most vulnerable segments of humanity.”

Without the rights conferred by citizenship, they have few avenues for redressing abuses, and little access to resources that could help them build better lives. They have few advocates, because human rights groups tend to focus on the types of abuses they suffer – trafficking, exploitation, discrimination – rather than the root of their problems, their statelessness.

“The very fact that democracy makes people count makes citizenship a more important social and political fact, and that has given an incentive to some political leaders to use citizenship as a tool to disenfranchise opponents,” said James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

By the most common count, there are 15 million stateless people in the world, but by its nature, this is a number nobody can know for certain.

The stateless include some 200,000 Urdu-speaking Bihari in scores of refugee settlements in Bangladesh, where they are barred from many government services and subject to harassment and discrimination.

Formerly a prosperous, land-owning community, they were stranded in Bangladesh when it separated from Urdu-speaking Pakistan in 1971. Although Pakistan at first offered refuge to fleeing Bihari, neither nation offers citizenship today to those who stayed behind.

IHT pic

It is not uncommon for Bihari men in Bangladesh to leave their wives to marry local Bengali women in order to obtain Bangladeshi citizenship. This 20-year-old woman, abandoned by her husband, makes paper bags to support herself and her baby. She is paid less than 25 cents for the 500 bags she makes each day. She is losing her sight in both eyes and has no health care.

Bihar has its own terrible legacy of British rule.

This is a lesson, to some extent, on perspective. If you live in an urban environment (and even if you don’t) I recommend to you a book called The Mole People: Life In The Tunnels Beneath New York City, by Jennifer Toth. The lesson is a depressing one. We already feel helpless in the face of what we think we know to the be the problem (who can even think for long about 10 million refugees? We’re busy being miserable in our cubicles, surrounded in more wealth than 99% of the world will ever know). How much worse to know that there are literally countless numbers of human beings out there, whose place and worth is so low that they are not counted at all?

Have I a solution? No. The countries holding these people, like New York City itself, have every incentive not to recognise them. Moreso than New York, the state of Bihar cannot afford more mouths to feed. The solution is for us, the wealthy, to respond in a truly global fashion. We will not. Even if we were moved to try, our attempts would be hijacked by Agribusinesses trying to complete the wreck of a place like Bihar with patented grains and seeds, or something. Maybe one day. My parents and grandparents never managed it, but perhaps the students I teach will.

This, by the by, is just one of the reasons why you should vote. It won’t help these people, but imagine how such people would feel to know you have citizenship in the greatest societies ever known, and give it not enough value to wield it in your own democracy.

There is an element of Satrean existentialism, here (sorry). One of the amazing things about humans is that our existence carries a level most things do not: our ability to re-purpose our own lives. Everything exists within itself, and with the meaning(s) with which it is imbued; you, though, have the ability to imbue your life with your own meaning – there is no meaning of life, after all, only the meaning in your life, which is for you to decide. This is why it is such a shame when Fox News, MTV and the electoral college convince so many of us that the meaning in our lives is for them to decide. Or when the vagaries of government and the political economy mean that some people’s lives have an entire identity, which the rest of us enjoy (citizenship), stripped away. My recommendation is for you to engage with anything besides a television, as you go along.

This is also selfish. Informed and engaged individuals, acting in their self-interest, also make Economics work better. So, do me a favour?


2 comments so far

  1. gninja on

    This also reminds me of what Derrida was attempting to work out in some of his essays in Paper Machine.

    In a couple of those essays he discusses the undocumented peoples in France (who go by “sans papiers”– an even more literal version of the English ‘undocumented’). People who are without paper are considered lacking in identity, but what do we do when all of society is moving from concrete documentation to virtual documentation? He questions how self-determination will work out when we are all, literally, without paper. In my opinion it’s only going to exacerbate the problem, because the control of who has paper (identity) and who does not transfers even more into the hands of those who control databanks.

  2. retro on

    It’s a shame what happened to Bangladesh. I hope the world steps up and helps them.

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