Stateless Dramatizes Cruelty of Immigrant Detention Bureaucracies

The Australian series shows it’s not all about Trump.


Stateless. Available now on Netflix.

There's something semi-surreal about watching Stateless, the new Netflix drama about immigration. There's not a facemask to be seen anywhere—the show was shot in the golden yesteryear before coronavirus—nor a single word about Donald Trump, for Stateless is set not in Texas or California but Australia.

Stateless is a good reminder that neither the politics nor the human tragedy of immigration has gone away, and that in the United States, the conflation of immigration with hatred for or love of Trump has almost completely obscured the real issue, the immigrants themselves.

They are up close and personal and center in Stateless, which takes place mostly in one of the desert detention camps into which Australia places all its UNCs, or unlawful non-citizens, as the country calls its illegal immigrants.

There's an Afghan family fleeing the Taliban so its little girls can go to school, Iraqis trying to get away from the chaos of post-Saddam life, and Chinese escaping an increasingly strident dictatorship.

The oddest refugee is actually trying to escape Australia, not enter it. Yvonne Strahovski of Chuck and Dexter plays Sofie Werner, a young Australian woman hiding from both her overbearing family and a vengeful cult.

Posing as a German tourist who has overstayed her visa, Sofie's hope is to be deported. But Australia's cumbersome and pitiless immigration bureaucracy is no more efficient at the exit door than it is at the entry. Learning her case can't move forward until she has an official immigration interview, Sofie asks one of the camp's other residents when that might take place. The matter-of-fact reply: "When frogs grow hair." Some of the UNCs have been waiting seven years.

(Sofie's story arc may seem like a contrived way to get a gorgeous white woman into the forefront of the show, even if Stateless's makeup department does a magnificent job of de-glamming Strahovski. In fact, Sofie's story closely resembles that of an Australian woman named Cornelia Rau who blundered into the country's official immigration maze in 2004 and was trapped there 10 months before her family managed to extricate her.)

Sofie is one of three characters whose tales begin separately but intersect in the detention camp. Another is Ameer (Australian TV regular Fayssal Bazzi), an Afghan who dreams of opening a tire shop in Australia where he can keep his wife and daughters out of the medieval clutches of the Taliban. After being bullied and robbed by smugglers, he finally arrives in Australia, only to find himself locked up in what's little more than a jail. "Why?" a friend answers his question. "Because we are terrorists!" The rest of the UNCs cheer in mock enthusiasm.

The third is Cam Sandford (Jai Courtney, Spartacus), a genial blue-collar worker who leaves his dead-end job in a junkyard for a better-paying gig as a detention-center guard. He immediately wonders what he's gotten into as he listens to other guards dismiss the refugees as illiterate seaborne trash. "Two words I reckon they learn on the boat—'motherfucker' and 'visa,'" says one.

Even so, there are few real villains in Stateless. Mostly they're driven by bureaucratic inertia and indifference—and an institutional fear of bad publicity—rather than purposeful cruelty.

When some agitated Sri Lankans climb onto the roof of a building and threaten to cut their own throats in view of orbiting TV news helicopters, the bosses find it's easier to get military jets to run the choppers off than to requisition a Sinhalese-speaking translator to find out what the protesters want. And when Ameer is too ill to go to the dining room, he goes hungry—some dusty health-department regulation forbids food in the cells.

The lack of a real Snidely Whiplash keeps Stateless from falling into the tarpit of melodrama that often makes the arguments of pro-immigration activists so tedious. The holding centers where Western governments stash immigrants—be they in Australia or the United States or Great Britain—are not Treblinkas or Devil's Islands. Their barbarity lies not in racks or iron maidens but in keeping people hopelessly locked up without trials or hearings for the crime of trying to better themselves. Buying everybody in America a week's subscription to Netflix to watch Stateless would do more for the cause than a million speeches by overheated ACLU lawyers.

Yet Stateless is not a work of propaganda. It's a drama, and a fine one. The characters' evolution as they're exposed to the immigration center and trapped in webs of secretive contradictions that ruin careers and families produces irresistible story lines.

None is better than that of Strahovski, a wildly underrated actress who was masterful as a slowly humanizing professional assassin in Chuck and an heiress walking a tightrope over a gaping chasm of sociopathy in her two seasons on Dexter. Her Sofie starts out as a genuinely aggrieved but also self-indulgent and lazy naif, then rises above her sense of victimhood as she lives among the imprisoned UNCs. When she smiles, she lights up a room; when's she ragged and begrimed, she's the manifestation of the un-personhood of the refugee.

A word is also due the omni-talented Cate Blanchett, who not only co-created and produced Stateless, but cast herself in a small but intensely memorable role as one of the cult leaders. She sings! She dances! And when she oozily assures Sofie not to worry about the $400-a-week tab for membership that "this has never been about the money," you instantly understand that it's always been about the money, except when it's about the sex.