Christiana Bukalo next to a window wearing a black sweater
Ashoka Fellow seit 2023   |   Germany

Christiana Bukalo

Growing up without citizenship in Germany, Christiana Bukalo intimately understands the isolation of statelessness. She is pioneering the world's first community for and by stateless individuals,…
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This description of Christiana Bukalo's work was prepared when Christiana Bukalo was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2023.


Growing up without citizenship in Germany, Christiana Bukalo intimately understands the isolation of statelessness. She is pioneering the world's first community for and by stateless individuals, providing belonging, amplifying voices, and offering representation often denied due to citizenship status. By connecting grassroots empowerment with institutional change, she transforms these groups into active participants in societal dialogues. At the same time, she is working to shift societal perceptions, emphasizing that statelessness doesn't mean 'rightlessness,' and championing the intrinsic human right to belong and engage in society.

Die neue Idee

Statelessness, a situation where individuals lack recognized nationality from any country, affects millions around the world, depriving them of basic human rights and citizenship privileges. This problem extends beyond legal or administrative barriers, as those without a state often can't access essential services tied to their status, such as education, healthcare, and employment. The absence of these services not only prevents them from benefiting from their resident country’s support system but also negatively affects their mental health and self-esteem. The inability to engage in social and political participation traps stateless people in a cycle of exclusion and insecurity, leading to profound feelings of abandonment and helplessness. These difficulties are exacerbated by unclear procedures, lack of dedicated support, and limited awareness, all of which Christiana experienced firsthand growing up without a nationality in Germany.

By pioneering new forms of engagement for stateless individuals and establishing a supportive network, Christiana aims to address the trauma and disenfranchisement faced by this group. Her goal is to enable them to collaboratively lead solutions that address their unique challenges, ultimately facilitating their integration as active members of society. With Statefree, she is building the first-ever support system exclusively designed by and for stateless individuals. Every week, hundreds of stateless people connect both online and offline to share experiences, knowledge, and mutual support. This unique platform provides a safe space where stateless individuals can find community and belonging, countering the isolating nature of their condition. Statefree also connects them with professionals like lawyers and psychologists, all specifically trained to offer concrete assistance and resources, ensuring effective matching of expertise. Unlike traditional top-down advocacy groups, Statefree prioritizes inclusivity and collaboration, allowing each member to actively shape the community's direction and initiatives. By doing so, Statefree not only ensures that stateless voices are heard but also valued and sought after for their active participation.

Christiana's vision for Statefree extends beyond a support network. She envisions Statefree as amplifying the often-invisible voices of stateless people, turning them into experts of their experiences. For this, Statefree strategically builds partnerships with politicians, ministerial bureaucracies, law agencies, and other interest groups invested in citizenship status, serving as an exchange platform within the German landscape. Through promoting dialogues and fostering collaborations, Statefree facilitates the equitable development of solutions, creating avenues for political engagement among individuals who were previously excluded due to their stateless status. On an international level, Christiana unites support for stateless individuals within the fragmented landscape of civil society, positioning community members as experts and aligning services with their experiences. In Germany, she has already managed to put the issue on the political agenda, such as by incorporating a solution for a determination procedure for stateless people into the governing party's program. As the go-to organization for expertise, community members of Statefree are co-leading the design and implementation of this solution.

Moreover, by offering a replicable blueprint for self-representation and participation, Statefree stands as a model for other marginalized groups. It is scaling in neighboring countries like the Netherlands, serving as an effective way to enable participation for historically overlooked individuals.

Das Problem

The substantial increase in the global refugee population over the last decade, propelled by climate change, political conflicts, and poverty, has led to an unparalleled surge in statelessness, expected to continue growing. According to the United Nations, a 'stateless person' is an individual not recognized as 'a national' by any state through 'the operation of its law.' Affecting an estimated global population of 15 million individuals, including more than half a million in Europe alone, this figure is likely an underestimation due to the inherent issue of underreporting.

Statelessness can have a variety of causes, such as the dissolution of states, the cession of territory and the arbitrary refusal or withdrawal of nationality by a nation state. For instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in a significant population in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states being left without recognized nationality. Recent geopolitical events, like Russia's invasion of Ukraine, have escalated the risk of people in the region becoming stateless. Moreover, certain regimes globally employ citizenship as a political tool to deliberately deprive individuals of their rights, as seen in the Rohingya situation in Myanmar. In Germany, the influx of refugees since 2014 has led to a twofold rise in the population lacking citizenship or having unclear citizenship status. As statelessness often follows a hereditary path due to citizenship being based on parental nationality, 16% of stateless individuals born in Germany are classified as "second-generation stateless." This percentage increases to 32% among those with an undetermined nationality.

Aside from being denied the right to a nationality, statelessness can have serious consequences on all aspects of a person's life and their family members. Not only are they deprived of legal protection, but they also face daily risks of human rights violations. Depending on the context, they are often barred from accessing basic services and rights, including healthcare, education, and lawful employment. Without identity documents, simple tasks like opening a bank account or renting a property become almost impossible, while their movements and travel are restricted. Moreover, without voting rights, they are not eligible to participate in the political process to represent their interests. As a result, those affected are excluded from almost all aspects of society.

Although Germany is a signatory to Conventions on the legal status of stateless people and the reduction of statelessness, it currently does not fully meet the requirements. This includes the fact that, like many other countries, Germany lacks a transparent and systematic recognition procedure in place. While being classified as "stateless" should entitle individuals to certain rights, such as eventual naturalization, without a proper procedure in place, many people are left with an undetermined nationality. Individuals whose statelessness has not yet been officially determined are usually not granted these rights, meaning that barriers for them are even higher. Due to the absence of standardized protocols and procedures, the legal and administrative systems are ill-equipped to address the issue effectively.

Trapped in an undetermined space, stateless individuals often feel isolated and unwelcome. As such, statelessness is deeply intertwined with issues of discrimination and exclusion. This is especially pronounced among already marginalized groups, such as ethnic minorities, migrants, and displaced peoples, further exacerbating their precarious status. Living without any formal ties or sense of belonging, these groups endure severe personal trauma and stress that profoundly impact their mental health. Furthermore, the constant fear of detention and deportation, despite having no recognized homeland, adds to their anxiety and stress, eroding their self-worth and sense of security. This situation leads to a deeply internalized belief that they are of lesser value, undeserving of compassion or dignity, thereby inhibiting their potential to contribute to society. Consequently, they often withdraw into invisibility and silence.

While there is a steadily growing number of non-profit organizations and individual activists dedicated to ending statelessness, the movement is often hampered by fragmentation, disjointed initiatives, and a lack of information. Well-intentioned advocacy groups frequently lack meaningful representation from stateless people, and there is a notable scarcity of scholarly research focused on the everyday challenges these individuals face, as well as their opportunities to participate in society. This deficiency in public and political understanding of the legal situations and daily hardships encountered by stateless people, coupled with the shortage of research, leads to inconsistent and confusing administrative practices. As a result, government workers, refugee agencies, and humanitarian organizations often have limited recognition of statelessness. Ultimately, the multifaceted nature of statelessness remains inadequately understood, failing to adequately represent the unique experiences of those affected, causing them to fall through the cracks of any support system.

Die Strategie

Over the past two years, Christiana has been building and amplifying a support system for those affected by statelessness across the international, regional, and national levels. At the core of her strategy lies the fundamental principle of placing stateless individuals at the center of everything she does. She diligently builds the Statefree model to ensure that all organizational priorities and initiatives are directly informed and driven by their active input, participation, and feedback. The goal is to enable them to collaboratively shape the understanding of their statelessness, so they can better assert their rights and interests through Statefree.

Guided by three core pillars - Community, Visibility, and Equal rights - the first pillar centers on building an inclusive community that unites stateless individuals both online and offline. The online forum, moderated by volunteer members from the Statefree community, offers a platform for stateless individuals to access helpful information, advice, research, and personal experiences shared by the community. This virtual environment serves two crucial functions: it facilitates connections, interactions, and engagement among stateless individuals across geographical barriers, fostering a sense of belonging and awareness of their situation and rights. Additionally, it addresses the scarcity of accessible information by providing practical guidance and specialized assistance to navigate challenges. The website caters to stateless individuals and "allies," forming a network of lawyers, researchers, psychologists, and activists. Stateless individuals can seek advice and legal assistance directly through the forum or Statefree's mediation, on topics such as residence permits or travel permissions. Around 350 active members from various countries like Belgium, Latvia, Palestine, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States participate weekly. Statefree's Community Labs further solidify this by convening stateless community members offline, focusing on advancing political advocacy efforts, particularly in Germany. In these labs, 15-20 members are invited as experts in their own issues, discuss laws, political frameworks, and collaboratively shape change proposals that directly affect them. The outcomes are subsequently disseminated within the online community, sharing knowledge across various political contexts. The aim is to extend these labs to other political settings as well.

In online and offline meetings, Statefree's community members collectively determine the organization's activities. This is the cornerstone of the second pillar, "Visibility," reshaping narratives about statelessness and bringing the topic into public discourse. Given that the topic is often associated with shame and substantial stigma, the process of publicly acknowledging and speaking up about one's statelessness often signifies a gradual yet pivotal journey towards liberation for stateless individuals, a path that Christiana and her team mentor. An example is the Statefree Pod, a podcast series available in three languages, illuminating the ways in which statelessness affects their friendships, families, and everyday lives. Another example is a community-orchestrated photography exhibition challenging the media's representation of identitylessness and victimization. This exhibition featured narratives and portraits of 14 stateless individuals from 7 different nations.

Understanding that stateless individuals themselves should shape narratives in mainstream media and bring visibility to their stories, Christiana is offering training in storytelling through communication coaching and media training. The efforts of community members to raise their voices have increased media attention on statelessness in Germany. This has led to interviews, reports in national newspapers, and the topic being featured on national news broadcasts.

The third pillar, "Equal Rights," is rooted in Christiana's belief in long-term solutions co-created with stateless individuals. She aspires to make Germany a role model for addressing statelessness within Europe. With community input, the first significant goal of political advocacy was established: the creation of a statelessness determination procedure, aligning Germany with its international responsibilities. Statefree serves as a connector, representing stateless individuals’ concerns and facilitating communication between them, political decision-makers, and interest groups, such as migrant organizations. One way through which this is being accomplished is by Christiana strategically forging relationships with political decision-makers in the German Bundestag and state parliaments, particularly those who engage with statelessness due to their focus on migration-related issues.

By directly initiating dialogues, her aim is to enhance their awareness, foster deeper comprehension, and cultivate them as allies in tackling the challenges of statelessness. In these conversations, Statefree and its community act as the primary reservoir of knowledge and firsthand experiences, underscoring an often-underrepresented issue within the German political landscape. Statefree also organizes 'Statefree Dinners,' events that bring selected politicians together with community members for intimate dialogues. These gatherings lead to exchanges that enable stateless individuals to experience political participation while granting politicians firsthand expertise.

Christiana's efforts in just two years have succeeded in placing statelessness on the political agenda, including its mention in the coalition agreement of Lower Saxony's federal state parliament and a statelessness report by the Bavarian State Parliament in collaboration with the Green Party in Bayern. Statefree is now regularly consulted by governing political parties like the Green Party, Social Democrats, and Liberal Party for their input on reform proposals such as the German Nationality Act. It also collaborates to push proposals and demands, as seen with the Left Party, where Statefree initiated a formal request to the government for improved data collection on stateless individuals in Germany—a matter currently under examination. Additionally, Statefree's expertise is being increasingly sought by administrative officials and legal councils for practical matters related to statelessness, broadening its role to include educational support and training.

Internationally, Christiana actively forges connections with NGOs, advocacy groups, and international organizations supporting stateless individuals, filling a representation gap for this community within these networks. Statefree's role as a bridge enables self-representation, connecting firsthand experiences of statelessness with influential entities that might lack such insights. For example, Statefree's advocacy has prompted policy shifts within major European bodies like the European Network on Statelessness and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. These changes have led to mandates for direct stateless representation, allowing members of the Statefree community to become board members within these organizations. Another notable success was the joint creation of the first report on statelessness in Germany, in collaboration with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and the European Network on Statelessness. This report detailed both the conditions of stateless individuals and recommendations for improvement, and it was formally presented to the United Nations.

This year, Statefree achieved a significant milestone by being invited by the Federal Ministry of the Interior to participate in discussions about amendments to the Nationality Act, serving as the exclusive representation of the stateless community's interests. Following this, Statefree was tasked with contributing collaborative recommendations for the draft legislation, using insights gathered from community members, legal experts, and researchers within the network. This proposal is now pending parliamentary consideration. As the next phase, Statefree plans to host an online hackathon, inviting all community members to participate in crafting and refining the determination procedure.

Impact on the community level is assessed through ongoing evaluation of community engagement and feedback within Statefree. Stateless individuals report enhanced self-understanding, greater unity, increased political interest and trust, and a hopeful outlook on their situation as a result of their involvement.

In the coming years, Statefree envisions establishing the "Statefree Law Clinic," an expert entity that will offer specialized legal assistance and structured training to aid stateless individuals. Additionally, Statefree aims to create an educational program designed to train government officials in effectively supporting stateless individuals. This initiative seeks to enhance government personnel's comprehension of statelessness-related matters, ultimately leading to improved assistance and services for stateless individuals within the administrative framework. Looking ahead, in the long term, Christiana envisions replicating her model through community members in other countries, with Statefree offering strategic guidance. This vision is already gaining momentum, with considerable interest from community members to establish local chapters in their respective countries, and the first pilot project successfully launched in the Netherlands. By doing so, Christiana not only validates the feasibility and effectiveness of the replication model but also creates a blueprint for participatory democracy and enhanced representation that can be a pathway for engaging other marginalized groups in societal discourse and decision-making.

Die Person

Christiana inherited statelessness from her West African parents who migrated to Germany almost 30 years ago due to lacking necessary paperwork. Growing up in a small town near Munich in an asylum home, her early life was defined by the uncertainty of her citizenship status. This uncertainty led to structural disadvantages in school that became more apparent; for instance, lacking an identity document, she couldn't participate in international school trips, as it would have been necessary for travel across borders. Throughout her experiences, she struggled to grasp the structural context she found herself in, partly due to the elusive nature of the concept of statelessness itself.

A significant turning point in Christiana's journey came when she planned a trip to Morocco after school, believing she had all the necessary documents. Upon arrival, she learned that her German residence permit was not accepted by Morocco as a valid visa entry, leading her to be confined to the airport's transit area for 20 hours before being sent back to Germany. This experience left a lasting impression on her and prompted her to investigate her citizenship status. Initially, she thought she might be among a small number of stateless individuals, due to the lack of information and resources available.

Her subsequent research uncovered the widespread issue of statelessness, leading her to conceive the idea for Statefree - an information platform where stateless individuals could access pertinent information, support, and resources. Drawing on her experiences as a youth and church board member in Puchheim, where she had successfully fostered connections between refugees and the broader community, Christiana recognized the importance of fostering dialogue between insiders and outsiders and acknowledged the potency of uniting diverse perspectives to create collaborative spaces. As a result, the plattform quickly grew into the Statefree community, amplifying voices and bridging the gap between those with lived experiences and those in positions of power to drive meaningful change.