Statistical Reporting and the Representation of Stateless People: A Critical Note

Brad Blitz

This blog is derived from the forthcoming book chapter: Blitz, B. K. (2021). “Protection through Revisionism: the UNHCR, Statistical Reporting and the Representation of Stateless People”. In M. Land, K. Libal, J. Chambers (Eds.), Beyond Borders: The Human Rights of Non-Citizens at Home and Abroad. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

June 2021

One challenge complicating the task of effective humanitarian protection is the quality of data on the populations most affected. This is especially relevant when considering stateless groups whose presence is a source of contention for national authorities.

Unfortunately, undercounting is not simply a concern for statisticians.  It is often a political matter. Who is counted tells us about governmental and institutional priorities and exposes biases about what counts, and the ways in which resources should be allocated, including to demonstrate operational success.

As a policy area, statelessness is not immune from these pressures and while the UNHCR has now mainstreamed statelessness, the agency has also developed a greater fixation with targets, borrowing from the UN’s results-based management approach (RBM).

From 2005, the UNHCR started to produce more comprehensive statistics to demonstrate how it met institutional goals, including ensuring evidence-based resource allocation and policy formulation.  One result was the increased coverage of previously underreported groups. Within a decade UNHCR’s coverage of stateless people it had more than doubled from 30 countries, and by 2015, the UNHCR was publishing data on 79 states.

The UNHCR also started to explain its methodological processes and, then like other agencies, sought to make its data more operational. It offered definitions of the various categories of concern, indicated some principal sources, and presented data in more user-friendly formats. Amidst claims of greater accuracy, the UNHCR explicitly privileged certain types and sources of data, which it deemed to be more reliable such as national censuses and population registers1. Yet accompanying this approach, was an uncritical acceptance of how bias might creep in, and an assumption that individuals have sufficient agency to obtain a status or that states will cooperate to recognise and record their claims. Unfortunately, testimonies of stateless people tell a different story.

As UNHCR gave greater weight to de jure stateless people in its statistical reporting, having previously included both de jure and the trickier category of those with indeterminate status, the figures it presented raised questions about the methodologies used and the veracity of its sources.

Until just three years ago, UNHCR’s position was that there were an estimated 10 million stateless people in the world. This number had come down by two million over the previous five years. Even though the UNHCR recognised that its estimates were provisional, and these figures might not be sufficiently accurate, it continued to rely on them, amalgamating data sources and rough estimates.  There are several problems with this approach.

First, until 2019, it was unclear if UNHCR’s data only referred to de jure stateless people, those described as falling under their mandate, or if they also captured other categories of concern, including de facto stateless individuals, and persons with indeterminate nationality. The most recent information published on UNHCR’s website suggest that the agency is now considering both groups.

Second, UNHCR’s figures are for two population groups: those who meet the statelessness definition in the 1954 Convention because they are not considered as nationals of any State; and, persons with undetermined nationality. These figures rely on states providing accurate and impartial information. This is a two-way street. Not only is the cooperation of states essential, but such data could equally be used by oppressive states to create more stateless people, for example by excluding certain groups from registering their nationality.

Third, the UNHCR has changed its terms of measurement from one year to another, which makes longitudinal and comparative analysis problematic.

And finally, fourth, we find a lack of published statistics for countries which have experienced major refugee flows and which have historically hosted stateless groups such as Pakistan, South Africa, and Uganda. There is no information on other countries that previously were reported to have had stateless populations, such as Madagascar, and Nepal, where the U.S. government found that an estimated six million individuals lacked citizenship documentation. There are even gaps in reporting on states that have introduced statelessness determination procedures, such as, Switzerland.  In other cases, the figures are bizarrely low. Egypt, a country with a population of over 100 million, which has been home to over 200,000 refugees, including generations of Palestinians, is recorded having just five stateless people.

In its notes to the published data, the UNHCR provides some important small print, including claims that the data are generally provided by governments, based on their own definitions and methods of data collection. This admission was recorded to UNHCR’s donors as recently as February 2020.

Unfortunately, this endeavour raises as many questions, as it answers, leaving one to fear that UNHCR’s approach to reporting on populations of concern may, in fact, have the unintended effect of excluding many of those in need of protection.

1. The main sources include i) UNHCR’s statistical activities which collate data from national sources and some UNHCR operations; ii) United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) which provides information is limited to registered Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate; iii) data provided by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), limited to people displaced within their country due to conflict or violence.

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