Counting the uncountable: the challenge of collecting data on stateless people


How do you design effective policies and programmes to help vulnerable populations when you don’t know how many people you’re dealing with?

The difficulty of collecting reliable data in the midst of an emergency is a perennial problem for the humanitarian sector, but it is compounded when the people you’re trying to count have gone uncounted by their own government for decades.

Statelessness – the result of not being considered a national of any country – is often, by its very nature, an invisible problem that is extremely difficult to measure. Denied rights and services and forced to live on the margins of societies, stateless people are usually undocumented and ignored by authorities. They don’t show up in national censuses or in your typical databases.

The many potential causes – from lack of birth registration to redrawing of state boundaries to discriminatory nationality laws – complicate the task of tracking stateless populations. This presents a problem for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which is mandated to prevent and reduce statelessness and provide protection to stateless people.

UNHCR relies primarily on government statistics to map statelessness, but most states have shown little interest in trying to quantify something they may deny even exists. Myanmar, for example, has long asserted that its 1.3 million Rohingya cannot be nationals of Myanmar because they are Bengali migrants.

In addition, many stateless people are themselves reluctant to self-identify as stateless, said Stephen Pattison, a spokesperson on the issue for UNHCR.

Photo: D. Rako/UNHCR Raman, a 27-year-old Roma, was born in Kosovo but fled to Serbia during the conflict in 1999. He is not recognized as a citizen by either country.

“They don’t want to be stigmatised because of it,” he told IRIN. “Classifying populations as stateless can have the reverse effect we want – of [further] excluding them.”


The result of these challenges is that UNHCR only has data from 77 countries, providing a tally of 3.5 million stateless people by the end of 2013. With statelessness remaining unmapped in over 50 percent of states, UNHCR’s estimate that there at least 10 million stateless people globally is little more than guesswork and, most experts agree, probably a significant underestimation of the true number.

Brad Blitz of Middlesex University, who has researched statelessness, argues that the main problem with UNHCR’s data is its narrow definition of the problem, one which focuses on the “de jure” stateless and excludes large numbers of “de facto” stateless – people who have a nationality but are unable to avail themselves of it, often because they are living in another country.

Blitz gives the example of failed asylum seekers who have been deemed ineligible for protection but are unable to return to their home countries. “I would say that having an Eritrean passport doesn’t do much for you if you’re not considered a refugee; it doesn’t give you protection. There are large numbers of people like that,” he said.

Research that Blitz has done together with Rajith Lakshman at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University found that being stateless had long-term negative impacts on income, health and education levels. To mitigate those affects, “you need to be accurate [with your data] so you can have targeted policies in place,” he told IRIN.

Gaps in Africa

Last November, UNHCR launched a 10-year campaign to end statelessness by 2024 with a 10-point action plan that includes improving qualitative and quantitative data on stateless populations.

Bronwen Manby, a human rights and democracy researcher at the London School of Economics, predicts that the campaign will actually “increase” statelessness by many millions of people by bringing greater attention to the issue and bringing previously uncounted populations into focus.

Manby has written about major gaps in UNHCR’s current figures for statelessness in Sub-Saharan Africa – the total given is 721,303 in just four countries, the majority of them (700,000) in Côte d’Ivoire. There are no figures for many other African countries, including Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Zimbabwe – all of which are likely to have sizeable populations of stateless people but where there is little political will or resources to count them.

Expecting a government that introduced discriminatory nationality laws to collect data on the people it made stateless is probably not realistic, Manby points out, giving the example of Zimbabwe where people born to foreign parents were made stateless by a 2001 change to the country’s Citizenship Act.

Getting civil society involved in mapping statelessness is also problematic, says Pattison of UNHCR, because it raises issues around the quality and reliability of data that has to conform to the UN’s strict standards.

The result, according to Blitz, is that statelessness is being under-represented, making it harder to marshal public support to end it at a time when refugee numbers are soaring and statelessness is in danger of becoming less of a priority.

Knowing enough to act

He suggests that there are ways to better survey statelessness than UNHCR is currently using. “I think we need to expand definitions, employ more demographic methods and draw upon what we know about how people become stateless,” he told IRIN.

This could involve zeroing in on countries that have experienced state secession, such as South Sudan or former Soviet Union countries; or looking at long-term migrants from countries with laws stating that nationality can expire after a certain period of non-residency.

Manby points out that establishing truer figures of statelessness is often just too costly and difficult. “In order to establish accurate numbers in Zimbabwe, for example, you’d have to do quite an elaborate household survey and you’ll find some people have one document but not the other, so are they stateless or not?”

“Better data is a really good thing to have, if you can get it,” she adds. “But in the context of some countries where it’s really hard and expensive to get, is it really the priority? I think in many countries we know enough to act.”



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