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

5 min readDec 21, 2019

by Barbara Crossette. This article originally appeared on PassBlue.

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.

Over the next two years, 2020–2021, scores of countries will be conducting formal once-in-a-decade censuses not only to…


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