Census 2011, will migrants count themselves in?

The 2011 Census is now underway and it is hoped it will provide an accurate snapshot of the population of England and Wales. There were significant issues with the 2001 Census and it is not yet clear whether they have been overcome. Migrant community organisations have been working to encourage and help migrant fill in their questionnaires, but a good response from migrant communities will depend on wider issues.

Census 2011

Counting time is here: Census questionnaires have started arriving by post in every household in England and Wales. Census day is the 27 of March, but people can return the questionnaire before that date.

There have been very significant demographic changes since the last Census a decade ago, not least because of increasing levels of migration in that period. For years, local authorities, service providers and community leaders have complained about the unreliability of current estimates of migrant populations. There are serious problems with the way in which population figures are adjusted on a year by year basis between census years, but if all works well, the census should at least give us an accurate snapshot of the population in March 2011. However, that is a big if.

What have been the main issues in the past?

The 2001 Census was not encouraging in this sense, especially in London. That census had an estimated response rate of 94% but in inner London it was below 80%. The 10 local authorities with the lowest response rates were all London boroughs, including some of the poorest areas in the capital. Furthermore, non-response rates where highest amongst vulnerable groups such as council tenants, BME groups and single parent households. The census is adjusted to compensate for the missing responses, but there are still doubts that it does this adequately.

Undercounting has important effects: London Councils estimate that an undercount of 10,000 people can cost £60 million in funding for an average London borough in a ten year period. Some migrant groups in the capital have long argued that estimates of their population size are woefully low, yet have had few tools to challenge those estimates.

Amongst the explanations for low return rates in London is the high number of migrants living in the capital. It is assumed that migrants are more likely to be unfamiliar with the census, suspicious and mistrustful of authorities, face language barriers, and live in complicated household arrangements such as houses in multiple occupation and split properties. The stakes are therefore high, both for local authorities and for migrant communities.

Getting it right

So what is the chance that this time round there will be a better response in London, especially from migrants? Census managers, local authorities and the Greater London Authority have set in motion information and engagement campaigns in diverse languages at borough and pan-London levels. Migrant community organisations (MCOs) are also engaging with their clients and communities in different ways to encourage people to complete the census.

The activities of MCOs on the census was the subject of a meeting this week at City Hall. Groups that attended where generally positive about their engagement with census managers and local authorities. Yet, even though they were positive about their actions they left no doubt about the difficulty of the task of getting a wide response. MCOs can only achieve so much: their capacity is limited and only a part of the migrant population comes in contact with them. Despite this, these groups can play a key role in helping hard to reach parts of the migrant population to take part in the census.

So what are migrant community organisations doing? Their activities focus on three themes:

1)      Raising awareness: making sure that migrants and migrant communities know about the Census. They are doing this through events, workshops, informing clients and using different media such as radio and video.

2)      Myth busting: dispelling misconceptions about the census, especially about confidentiality and the fear that information will be used by authorities to police issues such as immigration or employment. Again, this has been done through events, media and responding to individual concerns of clients.

3)      Practical support: helping people fill in and return their census forms. Some will be doing this by holding ‘completion events’, other by helping out their clients on an individual basis.

Getting the word out

The census will set the baseline for population estimates in the next years as well as guide policy interventions and the allocation of budgets. It will be a moment to take stock on the population changes of the last few years and anticipate some of those coming in the future. Migrant community organisations are doing what they can to encourage migrants to complete the census but a good response will depend on wider issues, including migrants’ trust and their experiences of engaging with authorities and official processes.

For groups who want further information on how to support their members/clients with filling and returning census questionnaires census organisers have published information and ideas on how to hold completion events and information booklets in several languages.

Do you work for a migrant community organisation? What has been your experience with the census organisers? What activities are you carrying out to encourage people to complete the census?

Other users went on to read:


Check out this new online resource for MRCOs on the census, called Count us In: It is a campaign to get migrants and refugees in the UK to participate in the UK Census in spring 2011 - and the website has information on the census in a number of different languages.

There is also another key issue for us and Refugee and Migrant Community Organisations to bear in mind, and that is the consequences for 'community cohesion'. In one borough where we work, we have already seen one community informed that their lack of literacy will lead to the borough getting a low return. When challenged by us, the borough said that this was in ONS guidance, I read all 300+ pages of the guidance for LAs last year and not a word. It was complete scare mongering. We need to safeguard in the wake of the announcement of the level of return, (which yes will be lower than ever in some boroughs) against migrant and BAME communities being scapegoated for this. I would suggest lots of happy pictures of people completing their census forms and posting them doing them on line etc. The potential for negative backlash is immense, especially when local public sector agencies are looking to shift the blame.

You are absolutely right, Rita. Talk about local authorities' duty to promote good relations and community cohesion! It is true that local authorities have a lot at stake and might look for others to lay blame on if there are low returns in their areas.

A further issue is that of over-promising. People promoting the census can come close to suggesting that it is important for communities to get counted because that means more resources and better services for them. Of course it doesn't. It means better data to plan and allocate resources and for campaigners to support their causes, but resources will still be subject to political priorities and negotiation.

It is important to be part of the Census, in Scotland, the last Census showed an increase of 0.5% in the BME population, forcusing public sectors in their review of services.