Ghost Citizens: Researching the Legal Limbo of Stateless Persons

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Faculty member
International law
Social justice

By Common Law

Communication, Faculty of Law

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.

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. 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.

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 Ideas.  Listen to the full episode here.