January 18, 2021

Data availibility: Known unknowns

Samira Trad

“If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Stateless people often do not appear in official data. The state may be aware of their existence, but does not know how many there are, where they are, or what they need. They are invisible, and thus are easily overlooked or deliberately ignored. Lebanon is a prime example of this problem.

Quantifying statelessness in a country is a shared responsibility. While the state has the primary duty of identifying stateless people so it can meet its international commitments, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), together with other UN agencies, non-government organisations and academia, has the task of conducting research on statelessness, including providing evidence of the scale of the problem. It is important to obtain comprehensive data on statelessness – its characteristics, the number of people affected, their needs – so the state can design policies that address the issue and eliminate statelessness. Research is also crucial for civil society – and groups of stateless people themselves – to advocate for their interests.

But accurate, comprehensive data are hard to find. This is particularly true in Lebanon. UNHCR says it is difficult to count the number of stateless persons in Lebanon for two reasons: the last census was carried out in 1932, and official records such as civil status, registered births, hospital and midwife archives, and court archives are not digitalized.

It is important to go back into the past, to the creation of Lebanon after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, as decisions made then (for example, opting for Lebanese or some other nationality) relate to statelessness today. But the official records and historical data are inaccessible, as is the census of 1932. Without this information, data collection and analysis of statelessness is complicated. There are no official records on statelessness or comprehensive surveys of the stateless population, and the Lebanese state does not submit figures to UNHCR’s annual global data collection on statelessness. The information that is available is limited, scattered, incomplete, and based on various methods and approaches. Procedures to identify, register and document stateless persons are nonexistent – except for those known as qayd ad-dars (“under study”), who appear in a specific register as foreigners of unidentified nationality.

Many governments seem to think that if they
do not submit reports to the UNHCR, the
problem of statelessness will simply disappear

In Lebanon, many people are unwilling to identify themselves as being stateless, or are not aware that they need to do so. They do not necessarily see themselves as stateless since they have Lebanese origins or ancestors, so consider themselves Lebanese and entitled to the same protection as recognized citizens. The data collected by non-government organizations or researchers that rely on people identifying themselves as stateless is negligible and may thus not be accurate. Plus, those responsible for groups such as institutionalized children have not necessarily performed the administrative and judicial procedures needed to register those who are stateless.

Lebanese law is complex and lacks a definition of a “stateless person”. There is no legal framework to deal with stateless people. It still has to be decided whether people under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) or migrants and asylum seekers should be counted as stateless.

Granting Palestinians citizenship would make
10 percent more Sunnis eligible to vote – upsetting
an already fragile balance of religious power

This is coupled with a deliberate strategy to keep real demographic figures hidden for political reasons. Lebanon is composed of many religious communities. Its political system is built on power sharing among them based on a delicate, fictitious sectarian balance. This does not allow for changes that might exacerbate the demographic imbalance between the two main religions (Islam and Christianity). For example, a naturalization decree in 1994 granted citizenship to tens of thousands of people who were already quasi-citizens. But groups such as the Maronite League (Christians) considered this a dangerous process of demographic and social change and pushed for it to be annulled. The State Council denied fundamental rights to the new citizens throughout the review period, until 2003. Another fear is that recognizing statelessness would force the state to include Palestinian stateless refugees among other stateless communities, thereby terminating the agreement between the Arab states on the treatment of Palestinians.

Even if they try to collect and report accurate
numbers, official agencies face formidable
social, political, legal and technical barriers

The lack of data, the difficulty of accessing the data that do exist, and problems in registering and documenting stateless people all contribute to keeping people stateless, invisible and marginalized. The Lebanese state does not give high priority to identifying and measuring statelessness. By denying the prevalence of statelessness, it can avoid its obligations under international law to reduce this phenomenon and protect stateless persons.

This contribution is licensed under the following copyright licence: CC-BY 4.0

The article was published in the Atlas of the Stateless in English, French, and German.