Want to rebuild your life? First prove you’re alive - RSA

Want to rebuild your life? First prove you’re alive


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    Lauren Brown
    Humanitarian Filmmaker
  • Accessibility & inclusion
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War and forced migrations mean hundreds of thousands of displaced people lack the documents to find work, start a new life, or even prove they exist. Lauren Anders Brown, co-directed Forged, about the Syrian conflict. She argues that we desperately need a universal, non-governmental ID system

For two years, I lived in limbo in London as an American in a ground floor flat in Hackney. I was beyond lucky to be able to stay there, because my good friend owned it. I was never happier to have a lease agreement, pay my utility bills, and on occasion receive a random piece of post with my name and address on it. It meant I had proof I was living, or at least the type of proof a banking institution would require. After a painful three-hour process to open a joint account with my partner, I would finally have the last piece of the 32 pieces of the paperwork puzzle that would allow me to apply for my Leave To Remain

If I had not had that good friend, who went through the painstaking process of allowing my name to go on the utility bills or to stay in her flat, I would not be writing this article as a Fellow of the RSA because I would not have been able to remain in London. The Home Office doesn’t check in with your neighbours or the local coffee shop to determine whether you’re a living and breathing being. When you’re a migrant, documentation is everything if you want to move forward with your life.

So when my co-director Ali Alibrahim approached me to work on a documentary with him, it was something I was living in a very different way to him but also a story and an issue that needed to be addressed.

‘When my mother was killed during the Syrian conflict, we had no way of proving she died because she did not have any documentation. We lost the documents because the Syrian regime bombed our house. It made it so much more painful losing her… her death could not be held accountable to the Syrian Regime.’ Ali Alibrahim

Everyone deserves to prove who they are in order to live a fulfilled life, regardless of the ability of the government of their country of origin to provide them with the documentation they need to do so. This is a fundamental human right that needs to be guaranteed to all. The current system is not working, with people having no other option than turning to forgers as a means to survive.

The Syrian regime has been engaged in conflict with its own people for ten years, and during that time more than half a million of people have died, twice as many have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands born and many of them without documents proving their identity. Our documentary Forged shows how the Syrian people want to move on from the conflict but are unable to do so because the regime has made it so difficult to obtain any identity documents without fear of persecution or extortion.

The situation of the Syrian people is not unique. All over the world governments use the control of documentation as way to control people - if you are undocumented you find many of the universal human rights do not exist for you because you cannot prove you exist. Meanwhile, forced migration is on the rise due to large issues such as conflict and the climate crisis. It is happening right now for those in Ukraine who are fleeing their homes from the attacks by Russia.

With a world more connected as ever, even smaller and less dramatic personal circumstances such as migrating across a border for a life partner are made challenging or impossible with the current infrastructure for validating documentation globally. By ignoring this issue, we allow some to exploit this inequity and use it to commit crimes against humanity: human trafficking and terrorism to name just two. But the technology exists to prevent these situations from happening if we harness it.

So what began as a documentary has evolved into an impact campaign to gather data on those who are undocumented, to make sure they are counted. It’s also evolving into a continuation of the story, exploring the issues and potential solutions through a podcast series that keeps the conversation going and looks to inspire innovators and decision makers to do something different in regards to documentation. Albert Einstein famously said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Government-issued passports and papers are the same thing over and over again. 

By exploring the creation of a non-governmental identification system we can ensure this fundamental human right is restored to everyone around the world who has been denied the ability to prove who they are. So we can break the insanity and ensure what has been happening in Syria never happens again.

If you’d like to watch the full film, The Frontline Club is hosting a screening on April 13. Tickets are available here. And if you have ideas for innovations or information to share about the topic of a universal form of identification, please send me an email; I’d love to hear from you.

Lauren Anders Brown is a documentary director focusing on issues in global health and human rights in more than 40 countries. Her work includes producing long- and short-format motion picture, audio, and 360 documentaries and still photographs. She aims to amplify the voices of others and bring attention to issues affecting under-represented populations globally

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