What does it mean to be free? It is a question we are confronted with almost daily. The news shows us people struggling for survival. The familiar concepts of liberalism, democracy and capitalism that we are so familiar with are the longer the more contested. Philosophers throughout the centuries have seen freedom as one of the core concepts that humanity strives for. It is the reason for many wars, uprisings, revolutions, constitutional change, violence, but also for cooperation, altruism and peace making. But when I saw this contest, I knew something else had to be written down. A topic barely touched upon yet relevant, especially in an ever-globalising world. I tried, in 300 words or less, to express what freedom is, but more what it is like not to be. I hope this provokes some thought in you, and I am very honoured to have acquired the second place in the contest. Please, I invite you to start the debate in the comments section!

Disclaimer: This column was a submission for the Four Freedoms Column Competition, an initiative from the Roosevelt Foundation in coop with University College Roosevelt. It won the second place and will be presented on May 16th at the Four Freedoms Award Ceremony in Middelburg, NL. Full copyright goes to the author, Andrea Van Acker, and copying without credit will be met with legal charges.

Being free has so many meanings that differ between regions, social classes, ideologies and time periods. In my 21 years of life, as a free woman with a passport, I travelled to many different parts of the world, meeting some individuals who changed my perception of freedom drastically. Today, I do not want to give you a very sophisticated or philosophical answer to this question.  Instead, I want to bring forward a largely forgotten side of the story.

In Lebanon, I met Palestinian refugees, born in a refugee camp, with no passport or even an ID-card, prohibiting them from ever getting treated at the hospital, getting legally married or having a job. I met Syrian kids, born under ISIS, who are now officially stateless. In Nepal, I met Tibetan refugees who even after 3 generations, did not get a passport and are forced to stay in their refugee villages forever, where their children too will pass the days undocumented. I met women whose children are undocumented, because they were victims of rape. In Iran, I met Afghan children who could not attend school because they had no form of identification document, despite being born there.

Let me ask you now: If you were to ask these people about the importance of freedom of speech, would they not answer: “Sure, but it does not matter, for whatever I say is said by nobody.”? Is the right to abortion important if you can’t be admitted to hospital? Is democracy real if your vote will never count?

What are Human rights if you are not human?

Exercising your freedoms, or even just thinking about them, starts with being someone. I would therefore argue that, if you want people to be free, give them the right to identity first.

Andrea Van Acker