Newly updated statelessness statistics reveal ongoing challenges in measuring the issue

[posted 28 June 2017] Every year in June, as the international community marks World Refugee Day, UNHCR releases its updated statistics on the scale of the problem of forced displacement worldwide. Since 2004, these reports have also included data on the number of non-refugee stateless persons. The report published on 19 June 2017, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016, describes statelessness as “An ‘invisible’ problem – hard to track”. The data and narrative offered in the report confirm that the statistical picture of statelessness remains both incomplete and complex – a problem that was discussed in some detail in, amongst others, the 2013 UNHCR Statistical Yearbook.

The inherent challenges of measurement mean that the scale and reach of statelessness is difficult to grasp and progress hard to quantity. Nevertheless, as work to address the issue gains further momentum, interest in and scrutiny of statistics relating to statelessness is likely to also grow. This means that it is important to understand and contextualise the available numbers, including how they change over time – not just as situations of statelessness are resolved, but also as new cases are identified due to heightened awareness of the issue or statistics are revised on the basis of further mapping efforts. All the while, it is vital to acknowledge that identifying and implementing measures to address the root causes of statelessness and strengthen the human rights protection for stateless populations is not contingent on the availability of precise statistics.

10 million people “stateless or at risk of statelessness”

The new Global Trends report retains the estimate that the number of people affected by statelessness globally is 10 million. This is also the key number at the heart of UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign, launched in late 2014. However, the report’s summary section on “trends at a glance”, presents new language to describe the figure, as follows: “UNHCR estimated that at least 10 million were stateless or at risk of statelessness in 2016”. The equivalent text the previous year stated “UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people globally were stateless at the end of 2015”. The introduction of the notion of “risk of statelessness” in the context of the statistical reporting is not explained in the report, so the significance of this change of vocabulary is unclear. Neither is it clear if this has resulted in an expanded methodology, to also capture statistics of those “at risk of statelessness”. The country-by-country data on stateless populations, which is set out in Annex 7, still “cover stateless persons and persons of undetermined nationality”, as in previous years – and does not include an “at risk” category.

Removal of statistics on the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe

It is important to note that, as in previous years, the “at least 10 million” estimate comprises a more concrete figure for countries which maintain statistics on statelessness, and an estimate, for hidden stateless populations in those countries, as well as in the countries which do not maintain any statistics whatsoever. In last year’s Global Trends report, UNHCR reported data on stateless populations for 77 countries. This year, that number has dropped to 75. The two countries for which a figure for the number of persons under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate has been removed are the Dominican Republic (133,770 people reported previously) and Zimbabwe (300,000 people reported previously). With this change, the total number of stateless persons who have been “captured” in the global statistics collated by UNHCR has also dropped from nearly 3.7 million, to a little over 3.2 million. As the Global Trends report explains, the difference it is “due to more accurate figures” from these two countries, where significant stateless populations exist. In the statistical annexes, a further explanation is given for the change for both countries, to the effect that the situation is being studied with a view to “determine the size of the population that found an effective nationality solution under Law 169-14” (Dominican Republic) and “provide a revised estimate of statelessness figure” (Zimbabwe). Significantly, the updated information for both countries have been represented in the statistics table with a (-), which indicates that “the value is zero or not available”; and not with an (*) which would have indicated that there is “information about stateless persons but no reliable data”. It is important to emphasise however, that this change in the statistical picture for the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe should not be interpreted to mean that the statelessness problem in either state has been resolved. In fact, in respect of the Dominican Republic at least, the problem of statelessness remains of urgent concern – as recent reports by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and international human rights groups confirm.

Progress to reduce the number of stateless people

The new Global Trends report also reflects on what progress was made over the course of 2016 to help stateless people to acquire or confirm their nationality. It indicates that “a reported 60,800 stateless people in 31 countries acquired nationality during the year”, mentioning that Côte d’Ivoire, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Thailand contributed most significantly to this achievement. While this progress is very welcome, the figure for “reduction” in the number of stateless persons must be understood against the backdrop of the broader global statelessness phenomenon. The reality is that with statelessness being an inherited problem in a number of countries, many children continue to be born stateless and will find it a challenge to resolve their situation during childhood or even into adulthood. Indeed, UNHCR estimated in 2014 that “at least 70,000 children born in the 20 major non-refugee statelessness situations each year are unable to acquire any nationality”. Until real progress is made to break the inter-generational cycle of statelessness, there is the risk that the level of resolution of existing cases may continue to be matched by the generation of new cases.