Issue 30, Undocumented
What power does a document hold that it can determine one’s status, citizenship, gender or sexuality, race and ethnicity, rights and responsibility, future mobility, or access to wealth, education, healthcare, and legal protections? How and why do documents hold such absolute power over people’s lives?
These document…how are they obtained? Are they bestowed upon one by birth, or does one earn them? When is access – and associated rights and responsibilities – to documents denied, and what are the consequences to a person without documents, without the “correct” document?
It is an understatement to state that technology is rapidly advancing and being used to track and maintain all sorts of detailed and private documents, including health records, criminal records, employment histories, traffic violations, fingerprints, facial identification records, address, bank account, and on and on. In fact, an alarming initial response to the overturning of Roe in the U.S. was how private records on one’s phone could be weaponized if a woman became pregnant and sought an abortion. When records are easily accessed by the state or private citizens, privacy issues are a genuine concern. But so is the sheer power that various documents have over human lives and choices.
One needs a document to be part of society and access certain rights and social support. One needs a document to vote, to work, and to travel over borders. In many cases, if someone does not belong to one of the state-recognized gender categories, they cannot live with or marry someone they love, and they are not recognized by the gender with which they identify.
In today’s tech-obsessed world, we are witnessing people lose their ability to have an address or a document that proves their identity. In the U.S., would-be voters are expected to procure new types of documents to prove their eligibility to participate in one of the most important pillars of democracy. In India, residents who have lived and worked there for decades, in some cases before India was an independent nation, are now told to provide documents or become state-less. In China, where escapees from North Korea work or are forced into illegal marriages, sex trade, or unfair labor practices, live under the fear of deportation, imprisonment, and physical abuse.
Globally, the increased movements of people pose countless challenges in our document-obsessed world. Refugees who seek refuge in Western urban metropolises, after fleeing from persecution or devastation wrought by climate change or war, and victims of human trafficking often lack the necessary documentation to obtain a job, healthcare, a roof over their head, and everything else required to lead a life with dignity. Refugees, who may have fled with only a few, if any, documents, might have left behind their educational credentials and other evidence of their skills and qualifications – as doctors, nurses, technicians, engineers, and teachers. Or those documents are deemed irrelevant in host countries, leaving them with only menial job opportunities. Tragically, this is true even in host countries that lack sufficient applicants for skilled work, such as doctors, teachers, and information technology specialists. Documents, while affording some people protection and rights, can also be revoked, leaving a person in limbo.
What happens when someone doesn’t have a document that proves their identity, their citizenship, their educational status, or anything else about them? What happens when someone has no address?
Despite being the most educated generation in history, most millennials cannot afford a home because of the exorbitant housing prices. Those who cannot afford to pay exorbitant prices, or who suffer from mental illnesses and physical disabilities, or who do not have steady incomes, have precarious situations. Municipalities often deny financial support to those not registered at an address or those with no social security number. One cannot get a social security number if one doesn’t have an address. Without a social security number, one cannot open a bank account, get a job that pays a livable wage, or sign a contract for an apartment. Making matters worse, the state-funded social services that used to take care of vulnerable people are defunded in order to fund the law-enforcement agencies who treat the homeless with punishments instead of compassion and solutions. What a Kafkaesque situation!
This special issue of Shuddhashar takes a critical look at the role and power of documents in our societies and in our highly unequal global order. Contributors write about Africans and North Koreans in China, Rohingya in Bangladesh, Mexicans in the U.S, and nationless Tibetans. Authors consider homeless mothers in Sweden, the traumas of leaving homes behind, the invisible suffering of volunteers, registration obstacles for trans people, human trafficking, and drowned asylum seekers in the Mediterranean.
In these and many other contexts, documents emerge as keys and as obstacles. Contemplating documents and the conditions of being paperless reveal critical insights into society’s current views about identity and humanity.