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.

Documents of the Governed in Mumbai

“They (the government officials) make properly documented ‘ineligible’, find faults, and even undocumented ‘eligible’. We have to prove our eligibility. They make us realize the value of housing”, explained my interlocutor in India’s Mumbai. We live in an urban world. A recent United Nations report notes that 7 out of 10 urbanites are from developing …

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Myanmar State Politics and Historical Contexts of the Stateless and Undocumented Rohingyas

Since 2017, over 800,000 Rohingyas have fled persecution based on contestations related to their ethnic identities and claims within Myanmar. Rohingyas are the second-largest group of stateless people who were forced to escape genocide in Myanmar. Fleeing over the country’s border, Rohingyas took shelter in crowded camps in the south-eastern part of Bangladesh (Sengupta 2019; …

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The Rise and Fall of ‘Africatown’: A Brief History of the African Migrant Community in Guangzhou, China

The year is 2009. The location is Tangqi wholesale mall in Guangzhou, China. Little shops, some the size of storage units, line the mall’s breezeways selling cheap goods of dubious quality. The sound of tape ripping and snapping fills the air as the wholesalers begin to prepare their clothes for shipment back to their origin …

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Is History Repeating Itself? The Russo-Ukrainian War, the Russo-Georgian War, and Eurasia’s Path Forward

As the stories about horrors in Ukraine grip international headlines, too much attention is focused on troop movement and scenes of military might, but not enough attention is paid to the internally displaced people and the humanitarian situation on the ground. I had seen Ms. Tinatin Japaridze, VP of Business Development for Critical Mass, give …

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Seeking Belonging through Religious Conversion: The Plight of the Undocumented in Sweden

Why is belonging so important? How far is one willing to go to gain a sense of belonging, and what does it cost? How do those uprooted from their homeland find a sense of belonging in exile, and what sacrifices do they have to make? For many, religion provides a sence of belonging. Consider the …

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Hmong Diaspora Placemaking as Cultural Refuge

Places provide a common sense of territorial identity for migrants, refugees, and diaspora communities despite these groups having roots elsewhere. The activities of these communities question how we think about place and the fixity of boundaries of ‘here’ and ‘there’, and what it means to dwell in place. A central theme of these experiences is …

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Nowhere to Go: The Plight of Homeless Families in Sweden

A few years ago, I attended a meeting with a group of parents whose families were precariously housed and at risk of becoming homeless. They all lived in the same municipality in the greater Stockholm area of Sweden and were trying to mobilize around their families’ right to housing. A journalist from the local newspaper …

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My Meeting with the Refugee Crisis

In 2015, when a huge number of people fled to Europe, Norway’s newspapers and TV screens were full of pictures of people in rubber boats and marching through Europe in lines. One day there was an exceptional picture that drew everyone’s attention. It was the picture of Alan Kurdi. The little boy with the red …

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Undocumented Trauma

‘A true humanitarian does not get affected by the work they are doing’. I was surprised and, frankly, a little startled when one of the interview participants uttered this, staring me blankly in the face. It was not an opinion they conveyed but an established truth in humanitarian circles. Being 16 months into my PhD …

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‘Lost in Un-documented Existence’ in the Context of Stateless Rohingya

This essay is about how the politics of documentation impact the lives of stateless people, whose homes and sources of livelihood were eradicated in the homeland their ancestors lived in for decades and whose citizenship has been taken away or denied. Using evidence about the stateless Rohingya people, I will present how, historically, documentation and …

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