Reaching People Who Don’t Exist: Bringing the Undocumented Onboard

Reaching People Who Don’t Exist: Bringing the Undocumented Onboard


Over the long term, there is a trend of developing economies managing to lift huge swathes of the population out of extreme poverty. Millions of people are being brought into the formal economy, introduced into the banking system and educated. Over the long term, humankind is making colossal economic and social change.

But there remain many millions of people, even in relatively developed countries, that remain undocumented and uncounted by the authorities.

These people may never have had paperwork such as birth certificates or passports, or they may have lost these due to the upheavals of war. They may not be registered in any government system, uncounted in any census, unaccounted for in any medical or educational database.

In today’s society, being registered in core systems is a vital part of social participation. If you’re not included – or if you’re deliberately excluded – you are at a massive disadvantage across many areas of life.

You’re much less likely to get the medical care you need, access social services, gain an education, or participate in the formal economy and the banking system. Lack of documentation is a major barrier to getting on in life.

A global concern

Managing undocumented people isn’t just a problem for developing countries. It’s also an issue for economies that are highly developed. There are many reasons for people to be undocumented. This can include crisis, such as losing documentation when fleeing civil unrest.

It can encompass nomadic tribes who follow their herds across the desert or modern travellers who drive mobile homes. It can also include people that opt out of the system for political reasons, such as religious fundamentalists and survivalists.

Language is also a barrier to participation. For immigrant populations, language can be a major barrier to accessing systems. If immigrants possess identity documents from their country of origin these may need to be translated, which adds additional cost and complexity to the process of integration.

For minority language groups it can be a significant battle to interact with the system in the first place. For developing countries where many languages are spoken, catering to all language groups adds to the complexity of trying to bring people into formal systems.

When people are undocumented they tend to be invisible. Their needs can easily be overlooked by authorities and ignored by politicians. Because they aren’t factored into any census, they aren’t included in any strategic allocations of resources.

That’s a problem in a world where states are involved in peoples’ lives and able to make decisions that hugely affect them, such as how many nursery school places are needed.

In China, attention has recently been drawn to a population of ‘invisible women’ whose existence has never been registered. China’s one child policy meant that the birth of a girl baby was often concealed and no birth certificate was issued, as the parents hope to have a later male child.

A whole generation of women is now emerging, often becoming visible to the authorities between the ages of 10 and 20 when they try to register for education or marriage.

In some ways, it’s a positive thing – it was previously assumed that gender-based infanticide accounted for the gender imbalance in the population.

It’s now thought this gender imbalance may be less severe than previously thought – it’s just that many women are undocumented. These women are disadvantaged as they may never have had access to education and they can’t access benefits without a birth registration document.

Why this issue matters now

Whilst social exclusion has always been a problem for societies, the issues that accompany these undocumented populations are likely to be increasingly severe in impact as society progresses. Unesco estimates that around a third of a billion people could be missing from education systems worldwide.

This is a problem that’s increasingly severe as the world progresses into a more formal labour markets. Without access to education, these 300-odd millions will be at a severe disadvantage.

As populations age, societies are also increasingly reliant on a smaller working population to fund non-working people via taxation and service provision. If societies don’t manage to bring every worker into the formal labour market – and the taxation system – they are relying on an even smaller taxable population.

It’s a real incentive for authorities to bring populations into the formal economy. Availability of easily-exploited workers also helps suppress wages for those that are legally employed, so it’s also a labour issue.

In the US, the plight of young undocumented people is a highly politicised issue. The so-called ‘Dreamers’ include the children of immigrants who never achieved citizenship and are often from Hispanic communities.

These undocumented young people may have been born in the US and educated through the US school system, but they are unable to access social security, get health insurance, participate in further education or work legally.

Even one of the most developed countries in the world has this sizeable undocumented population – and seemingly no clear way to resolve the issue.

Most undocumented populations stand only to benefit from inclusion in formal systems. For many, the main reason stopping this happening is political obstacles. Many of China’s unregistered women fear penalties for their families; the plight of America’s ‘Dreamers’ is a hot political topic.

These political obstacles are preventing many millions of people participating in society and education, paying taxes and becoming part of the skilled workforce.

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