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For Census-Takers Worldwide, 2020 Could Be a Rough Year


A refugee with the documents he needs to go from Greece into what is now called North Macedonia, 2015. Over the next two years, scores of countries will conduct censuses, and they will need to include migration data. That collection of information will be difficult but essential for societies to function optimally. STEVE EVANS/CREATIVE COMMONS

For more than a week, protesters of all faiths have been marching by the hundreds of thousands on the streets of many Indian cities and towns to condemn a divisive new citizenship law targeting Muslims across the South Asian region.

The trouble had been brewing for months, after the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a discriminatory census of Muslims in India’s remote Northeast, near the Burmese border. Mass detentions of Muslims followed. Public outrage finally boiled over in mid-December with the expansive new law, which will bar Muslims across the region — in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh — from immigrating to India. The country has also banned entry to Muslim Rohingya refugees fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Censuses in one form or another have been around for millennia and can be used as brutal government tools. The independent Population Reference Bureau says in its latest World Population Data Sheet, subtitled “With a Focus on the Census Throughout History,” that Roman emperors used them to draft soldiers and collect taxes.

The traditional Western Christian Christmas story says that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem because his earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, had to obey a census decree by Caesar Augustus requiring families to register in the father’s ancestral town.

Whether the aim of a census was benign or punitive, census-taking could be dangerous, illustrated in vignettes on the new world population data sheet. Census-takers were on par with tax collectors in unpopularity. The data sheet recalls that “officials overseeing the Soviet Union’s 1937 census were executed or sent to labor camps when their data did not support Joseph Stalin’s claims that the population was growing due to collectivization policies.”

In 2019, the current outburst of antigovernment anger in India, while startling in its size and spontaneity, is part of a pattern emerging globally of more citizen opposition and obstacles to census-taking or how it is used.

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Over the next two years, 2020-2021, scores of countries will be conducting formal once-in-a-decade censuses not only to count numbers of people but also to build profiles of populations in economic and social terms. India’s census is scheduled for 2021. The last one, in 2011, showed a significant gender gap in births, much of which was attributed to the aborting of female fetuses — illegal but widespread in a culture favoring sons.

Health, education, the rights and status of women, environmental depredation and projections of future population growth or decline are only some of the crucial pieces of a nation’s life story that can be extracted from census data. Better data collection everywhere is crucial to meeting many of the Sustainable Development Goals, with the deadline of 2030 for measuring progress falling within the stretch of the 2020-2021 census rounds.

The tasks in new national censuses will need to include and categorize migration data. Speaking at the first meeting of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva on Dec. 17, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called this era “a time of turbulence” as the movements of people continue or grow.

Recent figures show that 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, including 25.9 million refugees, according to the UN high commissioner for refugees, the sponsor with Switzerland of the forum. The meeting was convened by Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Germany, Pakistan and Turkey, some of the countries with the largest refugee populations.

Joseph Chamie, a former director of the UN population division and a leading analyst and consultant on demographic data, said in an interview with PassBlue that collecting data on migration is far more difficult and challenging than collecting statistics on subjects like fertility or mortality.

“Concepts relating to migrants are less straightforward and more fluid than those for births or deaths,” he said. “Also, the compilation of migration data often requires international cooperation among nations, similar to trade statistics.”

Nevertheless, Chamie added, “The movement of people across borders is extremely important, demographically, socially, economically, politically and culturally.” Tallies of migrants have already affected politics across Europe.

The problems facing today’s census-takers are many and varied. They include — beyond the sheer numbers to be analyzed in a world of 7.7 billion people — the concerns of racial, ethnic and religious minorities who sense they are being undercounted or miscategorized; fears of what governments can or will do with the information they gather in an age of undemocratic nationalists; and a generalized “philosophical” resistance to government meddling in religious beliefs or family decisions.

“The 2020 round of censuses will be particularly difficult, given today’s political climate,” Chamie said. “People are increasingly concerned about governments asking questions and gathering personal information.”

He recalled how Americans of Middle Eastern heritage in the United States city of Detroit, fearing reprisals, avoided participating in the first census (in 2010) after the Arab-led 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The antivaccination movement, which has hastened the spread of measles globally, according to health experts, falls into the broad category of distrust for government programs.

In the US this year, the Supreme Court ruled against a request by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 American census. The decision supported the professional staff in the US Census Bureau, who were unwilling to tamper with plans that were already being carried out.

Demographers say that a requirement to declare citizenship status in censuses is common in many countries, but given the fears of immigrants under pressure in the US and their advocates, a citizenship question in the next census is considered threatening.

While there are concerns in developed industrial countries that too much information is being collected by governments, snooping or mining the rich store of Internet material, the situation in developing nations may be different. There, experts say, not-enough extensive data from censuses or other household surveys may be a larger issue.

In Africa, obstacles to development can be linked directly to inadequate or ineffective collection, analysis and use of data, the 2019 Ibrahim Index of African Governance report said.

“Statistical capacity constitutes a nation’s ability to collect, analyze, and disseminate high-quality data about its population and economy,” the report said. A few countries in Africa and Asia have apparently never taken formal censuses, the Population Reference Bureau data show. Many other governments rely on national household surveys of mixed quality, the Ibrahim index found.

“Quality statistics are essential for all stages of evidence-based decision-making, which include monitoring of social and economic indicators; allocating political representation and government resources; guiding private sector investment; and information for the international donor community for program design and policy formulation. . . . Many African countries still struggle to produce systematic, accurate, relevant, comparable and timely data.”

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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