“They call me the disappearer:
‘When he arrives, he’s already gone.’
I come flying, I go vanishing.
Rushing, rushing, on a lost course.
Me llaman el desaparecido:
‘Cuando llega, ya se ha ido.’
Volando vengo, volando voy.
De prisa, de prisa, a rumbo perdido.”
— Manu Chao, “Desaparecido”
Official institutions don’t like wanderers. Neither do the social webs that crystallize in their grasp. The world has fossilized into systems, predictable, stable, and sedentary. To play your part means remaining rigid in your place. A network of automated plans and protocols beats out an endless rhythm around you. It relies on you: to move fluidly, in and out of boundaries, is anathema.
Since the fog cleared on civilization’s first morning these words have been true. The nomad, in a kaleidoscope of incarnations, occupies space as a social deviant. Sometimes, the state takes charge of their punishment; other times, it is society that steps in to castigate the transgressor of norms. Here is a brief history of the pariah who saunters.
The First Days
Homo sapiens was born a species of drifters; and thus they remained for hundreds of thousands of years. Humans emerged around 300,000 years ago, and they hunted and foraged and roamed (with some rare exceptions) until 4,000–3,000 BC, when civilization came to a boil in the Mesopotamian alluvium. Beside its unprecedented institutions festered history’s starkest, most widespread power inequalities, fed (as most festering things are) by a caged system.
The new power structures hated and feared their living history, the “barbarians” who resisted the gravity of the urban center and its trappings. We are told today that civilization meant progress, and for the ones who profited it surely did; for many others, it meant a lowered standard of living. Disease, nutritional deficits, hard labor, and coercion: these and more were reasons to avoid becoming civilized. Homo sapiens, by and large, continued to drift. But official systems fed off the labor of farmers, who remained in one place, growing taxable surplus; the wanderer’s freedom threatened the new order. You could not tax, draft, or control a barbarian in the hinterland. Thus, in the eyes of the state, they were worthless people: at worst they were fearsome raiders, and at “best”, captured as slaves. An empire could annex hills, jungles, and deserts for miles; but it all meant nothing if barren of farmers. Said the King of Golconda to a Siamese visitor:
“It is true, I admit, that [the Siamese Kingdom] is of greater extent than mine, but you must agree that the King of Golconda [India] rules over men, while the king of Siam only rules over forests and mosquitoes.”
Rulers and their armies captured nomads on the city’s outskirts, forcing them to settle in the fields. Kingdoms outlawed drifting or incentivized farm life. Early propaganda showed nomads as savage — people without manners, eaters of raw meat, who knew not the enlightenment of grain. The civilized Chinese called hill-people “raw” and the city-dwellers “cooked”; the latter signified social evolution.
An early Sumerian description of the nomadic Amorite reads:
“A tent-dweller buffeted by wind and rain, he knows not prayers,
With the weapon he makes the mountain his habitation,
Contentious to excess, he turns against the land, known not to bend the knee,
Eats uncooked meat,
Has no house in his lifetime,
Is not brought to burial when he dies.”
This is what the world’s first government thought of wanderers; and so it has continued for thousands of years.
Nomads defy boundaries; they scatter neatly-ordered lines. Of course, governments and jurisdictions despise this. They crave order; they solicit consistency; they require borders. The wanderer is a bane upon the institutions that corral people, naming rules and sending out their mandates. Nomads cross the lines; they come and go; they fall into the shadows. They are expensive to document and, at times, impossible to track. Though ordinary people pin a kind of romance to their lifestyle, official systems see things differently. To the people in charge, the wanderer is outlaw — a threat to public order and safety. Nomads face discrimination; they are forcibly settled and denied travel rights; and, in extreme — but sadly, common — cases, they are victims of genocide.
Nomads are what Yuri Slezkine calls “permanent strangers”; such is their way of life. They are followed, in turn, by the slurs that plague all strangers: “dirty”, “thief”, “crude”, “sorcerers”, “scammers”, “job-stealers”, “dangerous”. They know not the ways of the people around them; they tend to keep to themselves; and they taint themselves further by holding taboo professions.
Slezkine writes in The Jewish Century:
“Death, trade, magic, wilderness, money, disease, and internal violence were often handled by people who claimed — or were assigned to — different gods, tongues, and origins […] They might have been allowed or forced to specialize in certain jobs because they were ethnic strangers, or they might have become ethnic strangers because they specialized in certain jobs — either way, they combined renewable ethnicity with a dangerous occupation.”
Gypsies, Jews, Travelers, Armenians, Sheikhs, Nawars and Parsis: these are only a few of the wandering “outcast” professionals. For hundreds of years they’ve filled roles as community fortune-tellers, money-lenders, entertainers, prostitutes and grave-diggers — services that are timelessly sought, and yet often cursed. Itinerant peoples, already ostracized, lose little by trading in these professions; what they gain is the means to survive. But in the eyes of the locals, the “taint” of the trade comes to soil the people. Their occupation transforms into a symbol of their character, and by extension the character of their whole race. A feedback loop amplifies their isolation, feeding the fires of bigotry.
Chief among the nomadic “outcast” professions has always been trade; even the Javanese word for “trader” — wong dagang — means “foreigner” or “wanderer”. From this comes the stereotype of the Jew-as-merchant, a caricature often applied to anti-Semitic ends. But the Jews are hardly unique in this line of work. Trade is a natural occupation for the itinerant and the fleet-footed; to succeed as a merchant, one must buy cheap and sell dear. Exotic wares from other countries are easy to mark up far from their place of origin. Luxury goods, in particular, tend to travel small and fetch high prices. But being a merchant has always come with a measure of distrust; with their far-off contacts, traders could carry both sinful ideas and exotic diseases. In 1500s London, to prevent this, Dutch merchants were forced to live in a segregated compound called the Steelyard. They were discouraged from interacting with the locals.
Another problem nomadic peoples face is land seizure. Governments and settlers base their concepts of “land ownership” on sedentary customs; because the nomad fails to cultivate a fixed and measurable plot of land, they are frequently denied use rights. This is called the “agricultural argument” to land ownership: the theory goes, if someone is “properly occupying” a tract of land(i.e., cultivating it), they are entitled to it; if not, the land can be taken from them for use by someone else. This argument has also been used to justify forcing native populations to farm. The Brussels Conference of 1890, for example, resolved to “bring about the extinction of barbarous customs” by “civilizing” nomadic indigenous peoples through agriculture.
Nomadic peoples often have trouble accessing social resources, such as education, health care and clean water. Education is hard and expensive to mobilize; nomads often have to choose between sending their children away to boarding school or keeping them out of school altogether. When they do send their kids to school, the education they receive is typically culturally insensitive. Nomadic children who receive an official education find themselves caught between two cultures, unable to adjust properly to either. Health care, too, often hinges on permanent residency, and states promise nomads access on the condition that they settle down. In the 1950s and 1960s, even the World Health Organization promoted the settlement of nomads as a way to improve their health outcomes. In terms of water rights, nomads clash with agriculturalists and extractive industries over access to water sources, especially in arid locations.
Forced Resettlement and Travel Prohibition
Throughout history numerous states have enacted policies of forced resettlement. Philip C. Salzman writes:
“Ottoman and republican Turkey, Czarist and Soviet Central Asia, colonial and post-colonial Morocco, imperial and Islamic Iran, socialist Mongolia, all share the same encapsulation of local pastoral populations.”
But this is a continuous effort within most states. As recently as 2012, for example, China enacted the “Five-Year Plan for the Project on Resettling Nomadic People within China”. Government policies can also indirectly incentivize nomadic resettlement through the promise of housing, employment, and educational opportunities.
Some countries have internal passport systems, or require “transhumance permits” for nomads within their borders. China, for example, has a system called “hukou”, which requires that the government approve any change in residency. In France, permanent travelers over the age of 16 must obtain a “travel permit” and cannot change their municipality of residency for at least two years. In other places, access to land is privately controlled or public planning agencies prohibit encampments. For example, it is illegal in most of Europe to establish an encampment except on authorized land. When governments fail to provide adequately-placed locations for this purpose, nomads such as the Roma and the Travellers find their lifestyles outlawed. This can occur despite simultaneous, politically-correct legislation aimed at extending dignity to these peoples.
Forced resettlement can ultimately end in genocide. In 1936, for example, the Nazi Minister of the Interior issued a circular called “Combating the Gypsy Plague” which ordered the forced settlement of Gypsies. Throughout the early 1930s, in fact, the Nazi government put in place several laws designed to prohibit travel and itinerant lifestyles. What began as a campaign to make nomads sedentary, however, ended in extermination. The attempt at settlement was abandoned and the Gypsies were carted off to concentration camps. An estimated half to three-quarters of Gypsies throughout Europe were murdered; in Germany, that figure rises to 85%. In 1943, Himmler wrote that, in occupied Soviet areas, “sedentary Gypsies and part-Gypsies are to be treated as citizens of the country. Nomadic Gypsies and part-Gypsies are to be placed on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.
The Extreme Case: Genocide
Though I call this “the extreme case”, it is unfortunately common. Hundreds of peoples throughout history were brutally killed to make way for development, colonizing settlers, or military power grabs. Governments and settlers justify their murder on the basis of nomadic peoples’ primitive technologies or ancient lifestyles. They are compared to animals, and as we’ll see, they are often killed like animals, as well. Here are just a few, brief examples of the kind of atrocities countless wanderers have faced:
Between 1880 and 1905, sheep-ranching settlers in Chile and Argentina virtually exterminated the Selk’nam people. At first, it happened as a side effect of settlement: the sheep the settlers brought outnumbered the natural food supply of the hunter-gatherers — the llama-like guanaco — and the wire fences they built impeded the wanderers’ mobility. But then, the ranchers began to hire mercenaries to kill the Selk’nam outright. The reward was highest for a slain pregnant woman with her fetus. Sometimes the ranchers themselves would leave slain sheep, poisoned with strychnine, in their fields as a trap — much the way some people poison stray cats and dogs. The Selk’nam population dropped from around 4,000 to 500 in just 25 years.
The Herero and Namaqua
From 1904–1907, after a rebellion in Namibia, German commanding officer General Lothar von Trotha ordered German settlers and military men to shoot male members of the Herero and Namaqua communities. Thousands of them were placed in concentration camps; women and children were driven out into the desert to die. An estimated 24,000 — 100,000 people were massacred, perhaps more.
The Tasmanian Aborigines
The Tasmanian Aborigines were called “the simplest people on earth”, an epithet which justified, in the eyes of British settlers, shooting every male they could find and taking the females as slaves. In an event called the “Black Line”, inspired by game drives, 2,000 settlers lined up 50 meters apart and pushed forward to kill and capture every Aboriginal in their path.
“Illegal” and Illegible
Refugees, the (unintentional) stateless, migrants and immigrants: these are the people who become “illegal”, “aliens” — sometimes in their own native lands.
Here, too, we see dehumanizing language. If you are an “illegal” person, you are an “illegitimate” person, which implies that you are not human in the same respect that people around you are. An “alien” can simply refer to a foreigner, but of course, the ultimate “aliens” are the aliens of myth, foreigners from outer space depicted as inhuman and often hostile or horrifying.
Nomads often don’t have access to birth registration, meaning their children don’t get birth certificates and so remain illegible to the state. They are stateless at birth, denied healthcare, education, employment, and any other rights denied to non-citizens. Sometimes this is due to their remote and elusive lifestyle, or to deliberate ethnic discrimination on the part of the government. Other times, war, imperialism, economic crises, territorial conflict or ideological disputes displace people or reorganize boundaries, causing people to lose citizenship or their homes. This can happen to people who were already nomadic, or it can affect previously sedentary populations, forcing them into nomadism as refugees or dislocated wanderers. Nomadic peoples who did not register for citizenship — or perhaps who were in another territory — at the time of Kuwait’s independence, for example, now find themselves ineligible under Kuwaiti immigration law. They are “illegal immigrants” in a space they and their families have occupied for generations.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are about 25.9 million refugees worldwide. Refugees can be stateless, but they are not synonymous terms. The key criterion that differentiates refugees from stateless people is that refugees seek asylum outside their home country, and are afraid of returning. Refugees may or may not hold a nationality.
The Rohingya are an example of a refugee group that is also stateless. They are a Muslim minority in Burma who are denied citizenship by the Burmese government. They are considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh; many of them originally migrated to Burma during British colonial rule, when Burma was considered a province of India. As a result of their statelessness their movement is restricted, their land is confiscated, they are arbitrarily taxed, forced into labor, and their houses are destroyed. Many of them live in refugee camps with poor sanitation and insufficient access to food and clean water.
According to the UNHCR, 57% of the refugees they encounter come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.
Sometimes people who were not previously nomadic become migrants as a result of war, famine, or political or economic conditions. If they migrate en masse they can be persecuted in their new countries. Citizens of the host country believe (whether correctly or incorrectly) that these people are stealing their jobs, taking social welfare money and resources that belong to them, or are causing significant cultural shifts that may be unwelcome. But these situations are usually complex. Sometimes, as in the case of Mexican migrants to the US, migrants choose a host country that is responsible for much of the turmoil in their home country.
For example, the World Bank, IMF, and the US pressured Mexico for decades into opening up its resources for foreign investment. They put conditions on loans and bailouts which led to economic opportunities drying up for rural Mexicans. Under NAFTA, the US prohibited the Mexican government from subsidizing Mexican corn farmers, while lowering customs barriers for the importation of subsidized US corn. As a result, small Mexican farmers could no longer compete with large, subsidized US industry. Migration or drug production became the only viable options for many. Mexican workers could go to the US, earn dollars, and send them back to their families. Alternatively, they could find seasonal jobs, work for a little while, and come back to build homes with their savings. Today you can still find many Mexican towns deserted by men; they are dotted with half-constructed homes of concrete cinderblock. Little by little the families will bring or send back money to finish construction.
From David Bacon’s Illegal People:
“‘Migration is a necessity, not a choice,’ explained Romualdo Juan Gutiérrez Cortéz, a teacher in Santiago Juxtlahuaca, in Oaxaca’s rural Mixteca region. ‘There is no work here. You can’t tell a child to study to be a doctor if there is no work for doctors in Mexico. It is a very daunting task for a Mexican teacher to convince students to get an education and stay in the country. It is disheartening to see a student go through many hardships to get an education here in Mexico and become a professional, and then later in the United States do manual labor.’”
Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which prohibited employers from hiring undocumented workers — thereby criminalizing work for migrants without papers. But this act was also the precursor to NAFTA. One of its provisions set up the “Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development”, a group designed to study the economic causes of migration and promote a solution. The group recommended free trade as a way to promote economic integration between Mexico and the US. Thus, NAFTA was born — a treaty that only exacerbated rates of illegal immigration.
Migrants often pass through multiple countries illegally, before arriving at their destination. Once they arrive — if they arrive — they can be arrested at the border, while driving or taking public transportation, or at their jobs or homes. They may experience homelessness or poverty because of their “illegal” status, and like refugees or stateless people, they can be denied social services like education and healthcare. If they are caught and detained, they are sent to detention centers, local jails, and private prisons. They have few, if any, rights in these places, and they have no idea how long they will be imprisoned. Their belongings are often permanently confiscated, they are humiliated, denied adequate food rations, separated from friends and family, beaten, and sometimes killed.
Mark Dow describes the experiences of detained migrants in his book, American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons:
“Marty [a former INS official] relates a story she heard about the Border Patrol picking up an undocumented Mexican in Arizona and driving him around for six hours, even though the detention center that they were supposed to go to was nearby. They kept driving in the desert heat until the already dehydrated prisoner vomited. ‘They love to do that,’ she adds, almost in passing […] ‘The mentality is that they’re, quote, aliens. Which means they’re subhuman. Then you can do anything to them.’”
In another account, a Nigerian immigrant is seized from his apartment and threatened with deportation for overstaying his visa. Returning to his home country would mean certain death; yet, immigration officers tease him about the prospect as if it were a joke:
“At first Tony Ebibillo [a Nigerian immigrant] went through a typical immigrant experience in America: plucked from his apartment for overstaying his visa, he was roughed up by the U.S. Border Patrol in South Florida, then locked up at Krome [a Miami detention center], where his personal belongings were taken away and never returned; he was verbally abused, held in isolation cells, and denied access to telephones and writing materials […] ‘The officers were laughing when someone passed out from hunger,’ Ebibillo reported, ‘saying, “You see, that one has been carried away, that’s how you will be.” […] Sending me back to Nigeria is like sentencing me to death,’ he told me. His father, his uncle, and he had openly criticized Nigeria’s military rulers.”
The Sedentary Bias of National and International Law
As hard as it is to be truly stateless — or even simply to live nomadically — some people choose and advocate for this path. A search for “statelessness” will turn up books and articles on how to “end” this “problem”. While many stateless people do not choose their statelessness, and enjoy little to no rights because of it, it’s important to recognize that the “problem” of statelessness is tainted with the bias of the state itself.
While the intentions here are good, the energy, perhaps, is misdirected. Stateless people around the world experience persecution, cannot get access to basic necessities, are denied dignity and freedom. But the problem is not their statelessness. To say that is to blame the victim. The problem is that the state refuses to legitimize anything that does not subscribe to its sense of order. Plenty of people do not want to be a part of any “system”; they do not want to be identified with any specific group; they want the freedom to move in and between boundaries, to shift and wander free of labels. The state needs labels, but many stateless people do not. To force them to take on a label in order to avoid persecution is unfair.
Jeremie Gilbert writes:
“Historically international law has been a vehicle to force nomadic peoples to settle down by favouring their inclusion within the borders of predominantly sedentary States. From this perspective, international law is traditionally a static force supporting a sedentarised way of life through its unconditional support for a sedentarist form of State sovereignty.”
The goals of the state are opposed to the goals of the nomad. States need predictability, trackability, legibility. They organize their labor force and their income sources through fixed jurisdictions. Control over movement helps them to tax and legislate. In order to travel, identification is usually necessary. And in order to obtain identification, you need a permanent address.
“Statehood means the establishment of legal institutions and administrative documentation such as identity cards and passports to monopolise control over the ‘legitimate means to movement’. Most of these means of control of movement require a settled and permanent abode. This administrative and legal control of movement that comes with statehood adds another layer of restriction to the mobility of nomads.”
Freedom of movement is a value drafted into both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). But the irony is that, when states approach freedom of movement as a “right”, they tend to do so from the perspective of largely sedentary citizens. You are required to establish a stable residence in order to obtain the identification documents that are necessary to travel. This requirement erects a legal barrier for nomadic peoples, potentially turning them into unwitting criminals, and gives precedence to those who actually need freedom of movement less.
“Most of the restrictions on the internal movement of the nomads are based on the obligation to adopt a permanent or semi-permanent form of residency in order to be able to have access to identification documents (which are necessary to allow free movement). Ironically a permanent form of residency is necessary to allow movement.”
Who are the people who willfully forfeit their personhood in the eyes of the world?
Garry Davis, who renounced his US citizenship in 1948, is one of the earliest documented examples of someone leaving the US to become stateless by choice. He created the World Passport, a stateless travel document which has been used with case-by-case success by stateless people and refugees for over 60 years. Before his death in 2013, he even sent a copy to both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
The World Passport is based on Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:
Other people who have chosen statelessness over US citizenship include Mike Gogulski, Thomas Jolley, Henry Martyn Noel, Glen Lee Roberts, and Harmon Wilfred.
Roberts wrote a book called How to Renounce Your Citizenship in Two Easy Steps. In an interview with The Daily Bell, he explains part of his rationale:
“I think that in my experiences living outside the USA for a decade, I came to see life as a need to find peace within ourselves. Taking an allegiance to a country, a group of political leaders, is inherently contrary to that. I have seen many write that one’s identity and even their self-esteem comes from that allegiance (which is usually involuntary) to the State. I believe that our identity and self-esteem are inherently and solely our own. We are created by a bio-spiritual system, not a political one. Our identity and self-esteem come to us from our spiritual essence combined with our experiences of life. We are creatures of the earth, not minions of some group of so-called “leaders.” The benefits of joining a “club” is for the leaders of that club, not the individual members.”
Mike Gogulski, an editor, translator and proofreader in Slovakia, runs nostate.com, which advocates an individualist or capitalistic anarchic philosophy. Gogulski explains why he renounced his citizenship in an interview on his website with Radio Slovakia International:
“Well, like every government, the United States government in my view is a criminal organization, it just happens to be one of the most powerful ones in existence today. So, where I see American politicians talking loudly about ideas of freedom and democracy and free markets, the reality, I think, is rather different.”
Sometimes people choose to become stateless in order to escape national duties that they did not consent to: for example, taxation or military service. In Harmon Wilfred’s case, he renounced his US citizenship to seek asylum for whistleblowing. But in the majority of cases — even some of the more practically motivated ones — ideology plays a heavy hand. These people are not always nomads; in fact, their statelessness makes it hard for them to travel. Often they must lay low as “illegal immigrants”. But many, you could say, are to some extent spiritual nomads, believing in the philosophy of a unified, borderless planet, and expressing the desire to see more than just their native corner of it.
Although the US allows its citizens to enter into statelessness through renunciation, it is one of the few countries to do so: most require their citizens to acquire another citizenship before they can renounce their old one. Furthermore, the fees and paperwork for US renunciation are hefty. The US charges upwards of $2,000, on top of an exit tax on assets and the requirement that all delinquent taxes be paid. For those who might choose this route, it is prohibitive. For some people, it’s not an option. You may not have chosen your citizenship, but you are stuck with it — and therefore, you are stuck with the laws that might bind you to a specific territory.
People become nomads and wanderers for many reasons. Some of us choose that way of life; some of us are born into it; others are forced to be permanent strangers. Some of us flee terror and destruction; others run from discrimination; some of us use the traveler’s life to gain freedom from rules and boundaries. The nomad’s life can be a blessing or a curse; it can be culture and heritage or genocide and erasure. But whether you choose this path or shoulder it as a burden, it’s important to remember the history of persecution that follows all drifters and vagrants. Since civilization began, its institutions have tried to silence the wandering soul in all its forms. And unfortunately, in too many cases, they have succeeded.
It would be impossible for me to cover, with detail, all the different forms of nomadism I have referenced in this article. I have glossed over many concepts and situations. I hope to cover some of these topics in more detail in future works — in particular, refugees, statelessness, and the history of genocide. My goal was to briefly illuminate the different types of nomadism that exist, and how all have been subject to persecution and delegitimization.
This is what unites us. Perhaps those of us with vagrant hearts and more resources can help fight for the dignity of us all.
- Bacon, David (2008). Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. Beacon Press: Boston.
- Cahill, Thomas (1998). The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. Random House: New York.
- Coventry Peace House (2008). Statelessness: the quiet torture of belonging nowhere. Coventry Peace House: Coventry.
- Dow, Mark (2004). American Gulag: Inside US Immigration Prisons. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles.
- Gilbert, Jérémie (2014). Nomadic Peoples and Human Rights. Routledge: London and New York.
- Salzman, Philip C. (1980). “Political Factors in the Future of Pastoralist Peoples” in Pastoral Peoples: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Nairobi, Kenya, 4–8 August 1980. Found in Gilbert, Jérémie (2014).
- Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
- Scott, James C. (2017). Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.
- Slezkine, Yuri (2004). The Jewish Century. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.