NRC: Confronting statelessness with statistics

Published: 27/Mar/2017
Source: Norwegian Refugee Council

People who have no official nationality are often denied their most basic rights. Understanding the scale, causes and consequences of statelessness is vital to addressing the issue.

“They are invisible and cannot live a dignified life,” Sadiq Kwesi Boateng says of the stateless populations he has worked with over the past two years.

In Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya, where statisticians Boateng and Helge Brunborg have been deployed, some groups have been stateless for generations. Statelessness often affects whole communities and constitutes a significant barrier to development and democratic participation. It is sometimes a consequence of displacement, but can also be a driver as people flee in search of protection elsewhere. The causes of statelessness vary, but the most common are discrimination, lack of birth registration, conflict of nationality laws and changes to national borders.

“Stateless persons are often denied basic rights such as access to education, health and livelihood opportunities. They cannot marry legally, and in some countries, they cannot legally bury their dead. They are not allowed to move freely, vote, run for office, or open bank accounts or access loans due to lack of documentation,” says Wanja Munaita, an expert in statelessness at UNHCR.

Unknown scale

Lack of data is a significant challenge in addressing statelessness. Current statistics cover 3.7 million people in 78 countries, but UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people are stateless worldwide. “Obtaining comprehensive data is important, it enables states to register and document those who live within their borders and better plan services for their population,” says Munaita.

NORCAP and Statistics Norway (SN) have worked together since 2010 to contribute to a better evidence base for policymaking and humanitarian action. In 2015 and 2016, we deployed Boateng and Brunborg, both SN staff members, to UNHCR in Kenya to improve the data on stateless people in the country.

Collecting data on stateless populations is often difficult because they live on the margins of society. Some estimates suggest that 20,000 people in Kenya have no official nationality, but our two experts fear the number is closer to 100,000, particularly if those at risk of becoming stateless are included.

Making the Pemba count

Boateng and Brunborg planned and supervised a study of the Pemba in Kenya, a population with its roots on the island of the same name that forms part of Tanzania’s Zanzibar archipelago. The first wave of Pemba people arrived as early as the 1930s. Having lived in Kenya for decades, and many being born there, they are not recognised as citizens of neither Kenyan nor Tanzania.

“We collected and analysed data on the number of individuals, the group’s composition and background, why they were stateless and how they may obtain a nationality,” Brunborg says. Working with UNHCR’s protection unit, they collaborated with employees from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the National Registration Bureau and a number of civil society organisations. They trained interviewers and supervisors in Mombasa and data entry clerks in Nairobi. “The training enhanced the capacity of government officers, UNHCR staff and staff of local organisations in survey methodology and data quality management,” says Munaita.

Similar studies conducted in 2015 on the Makonde population, the descendants of labourers from Mozambique and Tanzania, have led to a process of granting them citizenship. The hope is that the same will happen for the Pemba. “Resolving statelessness among the Pemba will give them a chance to belong and be recognised in Kenya as nationals. Nationality will give them full access to government services and opportunities to access financial services, among other things,” says Munaita. She believes the Pemba study will help to strengthen collaboration between UNHCR and the government in addressing the issue of statelessness.

A model for future surveys

To better capture data on stateless people and those at risk of becoming stateless, our deployees also made recommendations for Kenya’s 2019 census. The survey they developed may serve as a model for data collection on other stateless groups in Kenya and elsewhere. “In the end, our efforts will contribute to a comprehensive figure of statelessness in the country,” Boateng says.

Themes: ID Documents and Passports, Statelessness
Regions: Kenya, Côte d'Ivoire
Year: 2017