‘Stateless’ Imagines the Human Stories Behind a Broken Immigration System

There are about 70 million people around the world seeking sanctuary. Most of them are fleeing war and persecution, landing in other lands only to endure new oppressions. The emotional and psychological toll of being displaced is the key theme of the six-episode Netflix limited series “Stateless.” First produced by Australia’s ABC network where it aired earlier this year, the series now arrives in the U.S. just when we are deep in debates over immigration and identity. By looking at various characters from different backgrounds, the series asks us to consider the very feeling of being imprisoned.

The characters at the center of this narrative all encompass some angle of Australia’s immigration system. Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski) is a flight attendant who joins a strange, cultish dance club. When she endures an emotional breakdown she somehow finds herself at a Barton immigration detention center under a false identity. Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) and his family have fled Afghanistan through Pakistan and end up in Indonesia, where human smugglers swindle them out of their money. But a determined Ameer still gets his family on a refugee boat before he makes his own way to Australia and ends up at Barton. Cam (Jai Courtney) is a new guard hired at the facility who is lured by the good pay which allows him to get a house, to the delight of his wife who has just delivered a baby. But once he starts working at the facility Cam realizes it’s not the most humane terrain. In charge of the Barton center is Clare Kowitz (Asher Keddie), who feels the pressure of the government to give the world the impression that Australia’s immigration system remains spotless.

What “Stateless” is about can be found directly in its very title. All six chapters have a few definite storylines that move towards resolutions by the end, but the essence of the story is how every episode captures something about being displaced. The series was created by Tony Ayres, Elise McCredle and Australian-native Cate Blanchett, who took inspiration from a real local news story. Nearly all the “action” is confined to the Barton center, where different minds and interests are at play. Ameer is desperate to never have to return to the violence in Afghanistan while learning the archaic rules of living in what amounts to a prison. Cam has to juggle the moral dilemma of enjoying good pay while grappling with abuses such as colleagues punishing rowdy refugees by conveniently beating them in the one corner where security cameras can’t pry. Clare can’t risk any abuses being exposed or she will have to answer to her superiors. Everyone finds themselves disoriented in a sense by a system full of prejudices. The main story is that of Sofie, who represents the idea that the system can become so broken even a legal citizen can be entrapped. How she ends up at Barton forms the show’s binding flashback thread. Every episode reveals a bit more of how Sofie endured a breakdown, broke away from her family and became a hitchhiker plagued by hallucinations and memories. One senses she could be the token white character to get the show made, because a series solely about Afghan refugees would require a particular empathy. Yet her angle works and the message is efficient. Some people begin strange roads in life that take them to unexpected, harrowing places. In Sofie’s case she joined this New Age-style group led by a couple played by Blanchett and Dominic West who perform elaborate dinner party shows before shunning Sofie. Some individuals are running from war, others from painful experiences.

Much of “Stateless” becomes a pure human drama about the cruelty of how nations treat those simply changing their geographic location. It’s almost a statement on nationalism’s blindness, which goes beyond race. Some Barton guards are aborigines but never think twice about mocking the African and Middle Easterners who pass through the center. The cruelest of the bunch is Harriet (Rachel House), who expects Cam to keep his mouth shut when their supervisor asks about reported beatings. People like Harriet seem to be made hardened and cold by watching over refugees who pose no threat other than coming from another country and speaking another language, although Ameer is quite educated and speaks perfect English. Exaggerated fear is another theme explored in the writing, as when Clare mobilizes her guards to confront a planned protest, yet the activists who arrive carry balloons and cardboard signs, some are nuns. None of the traditional plots or villains we expect in a prison movie ever show up. Everyone is simply human. The refugees form a sense of solidarity as they have to, because all they have is each other. Sofie finds herself at home among them, partaking in Kurdish dancing at one point, because within a prison all who are captive are suddenly beneath the same boot. Scenes between Ameer and his daughter Mina (Soraya Heidari), are heart-wrenching because of how they could be any father-daughter pair anywhere in the world, but are trapped in this place, hoping to be free. This is a reality being lived right now in the United States, at migrant camps along our southern borderlands. 

There is suspense in “Stateless.” Sofie’s sister rushes to try and find her, Ameer is suddenly accused of crimes he has not committed, and Cam must make crucial decisions with moral and personal implications. However the true urgency and force of this limited series is in its portrayal of the human condition. The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “stateless persons” to describe individuals blown by the winds of history outside of their country of origin, suddenly bereft of a place to call home. Essentially they are forced to make a new home wherever they can. “Stateless” wonders why we make it so difficult for humans to seek new shores.

Stateless” begins streaming July 8 on Netflix.