'Your input counts': Could the 2021 census be an opportunity for Britain's Arab community?

'Your input counts': Could the 2021 census be an opportunity for Britain's Arab community?
7 min read
19 March, 2021
The Office for National Statistics says that understanding the needs of individual communities and identity groups is one of its main focuses for Census 2021.
The UK census, conducted every 10 years, is the most accurate snapshot of society [AFP]
A campaign to ensure the decennial census is completed by as many people as possible is underway. Meanwhile, community advocates say that completing the form and accurately identifying as 'Arab' could be empowering and help achieve better services and outcomes at the local and national level.

The census is a national survey conducted every 10 years, and is currently the most accurate snapshot of society, asking questions from income to household numbers.

Completing the detailed questionnaire is a legal requirement and must be done by 21 March this year. While a census has been taken regularly since 1801, the inclusion of an ethnicity question only emerged in 1991 and only in the last census of 2011 was a checkbox for 'Arab' included as a subsection of 'Other'.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) now says that understanding the needs of individual communities and identity groups is one of its main focuses for Census 2021, with a write-in option to allow people to self-identify.

To those ends, census organisers actively engage community groups to help as many people know how to complete the form.

Al-Hasaniya Moroccan Women's Centre is one such organisation working hard to encourage census completion among the local community. Souad Talsi, who founded the centre in 1985, says it is an "opportunity for us to influence policy and change and direct service delivery to our community".

The centre is based in Kensington, the London borough with one of the highest proportion of people with Arab origins at 4.1 recent of its population – the highest proportion (7.2 percent) living in Westminster – according to analysis on the last 2011 census.

With the same 'Arab' tick box option present in 2021, it will be the first time this data will be comparable between the two time periods.

This information is critical considering how under-researched the British Arab population is, according to the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), which last year published baseline research to assess existing research on British-Arab communities, identifying huge gaps in knowledge around British Arabs.

Through the census, it identified 240,545 people who ticked the 'Arab' box plus another 126,224 who self-identified as 'Arab African', 'White & Arab', 'Moroccan', 'North African', 'Somali', 'Somalilander' or 'White and North African' through written responses.

The more detailed information collected by the census, the better, says the ONS, which others can use outside the government, such as organisations working at a local level, to inform internal policies on equality, for businesses looking to create jobs, charities seeking funding and religious organisations planning services.

Ultimately it is a large source of information for decision-making on education, housing, public transport and healthcare, particularly with understanding the impact of COVID-19 on different communities, the 2011 census already providing crucial data that the 2021 results can further enrich.

"Your input counts," said Maged Musaeed, a community adviser in Sheffield working with the Arab community. "Your input is important and it can make a real impact on your local area as well as the whole country over the coming decade."

Your input is important and it can make a real impact on your local area as well as the whole country over the coming decade

Without having the information, you can't plan, says Talsi, pointing to the impact of COVID-19 on educational outcomes and the challenges of e-learning among families whose first language is not English. If half the student body of a school is, therefore, made up of children from Arabic-speaking households, special interventions may be needed at the local level, she suggests.

The picture of British Arabs is itself very diverse with some communities present in Britain for generations, while increasing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region has changed that landscape bringing in new arrivals.

This complicated composition can see engagement with data collection and response rates skewed. In 2011, the overall response rate to the census in England and Wales stood at 94 percent but the ONS recognises that some community groups may face challenges when completing it.

Chris Doyle, director of CAABU, says attitudes towards authority, including the census, are likely to differ according to these varied experiences.

"People who have arrived more recently, perhaps from countries that are ruled by repressive regimes, are less likely to want to engage with British authorities – their experience of authorities not being a positive one," says Doyle.

"Those who've been here for a lot longer have grown up here, been to school and college here, would be far more likely to engage with the census," he adds.

"There are a number of reasons why people may not want to engage," says Talsi, saying that there is an apprehension of the unfamiliar, or some of those in the precarious position of waiting for immigration decisions are worried providing the information will affect their status.

If you educate people to understand things, then the fear goes away, and they become empowered about giving information about themselves

That's the role community groups are playing, "If you educate people to understand things, then the fear goes away, and they become empowered about giving information about themselves," says Talsi.

That mistrust can exist among other groups as well, particularly as wariness around mass data collection and surveillance grows, says Doyle.

To rebuild trust, he says, there is no silver bullet but involves the better representation of British Arabs in British public life and for major institutions to be open to that engagement in politics, business, the cultural arena, local councils or healthcare trusts.

Read also: British Muslim participation in census ‘critical’ for better access to resources: researcher

"I think that the more that British Arabs are seen in public positions in Britain, that there are role models  we now have a Member of Parliament who is half Palestinian in Layla Moran  I think this sends out a very positive message in that it builds up a degree of trust," says Doyle.

"But if there is a sense, on the other hand, of exclusion or marginalisation, then of course, that is very dangerous, and you won't build trust through that. You will find people on the fringes," he says. British Arabs, he adds, are also too often subsumed under the British Muslim umbrella that doesn't necessarily sit accurately.

The policy interest in Arabs has been evidenced with the ONS picking up on previous research it cites in its information paper, deciding which tick-boxes to add to the ethnic group question in the 2011 England and Wales Census, from the National Association of British Arabs, which it said stated British Arabs face discrimination in many aspects of life.

As seen through CAABU's analysis, a third of those identifying as Arab did not do so through the tick box but through written responses, not necessarily treated consistently. Therefore, it remains a challenge in assessing the needs of different sub-groups.

Talsi says, however, "knowing there is a box that says 'Arab' is really a good start", and that there is power in identifying under the broad term of Arab and acting as a unified voice, despite vast differences between groups. A united identity, CAABU says, can help counter negative stereotypes.

Other downfalls CAABU identified in the last census include misunderstandings on how to complete the form or not detailing an accurate country of origin or other passports held.

Some may select 'African' or 'White', rather than choosing the 'Arab' or write-in option, which means they are not captured in data on Arabs at all. There is also no accurate picture of people with mixed heritage or who within the subset has permanent residence, is asylum-seeking, naturalised or was born in the UK.

The online-first nature of the census may also be a stumbling block.

"There are provisions in place to help everyone complete the census, whether that is through language support, a paper form, assistance over the phone or through in-person support where it is safe to do so," says Musaeed.

The utility of understanding the prevalence of British Arabs is such that the inclusion of 'Arab' on other forms should also be considered, noted CAABU in its 2020 report, saying it "boosts British-Arabs' visibility across a wide range of British public forms, including applications to join political parties."

"I would urge people to fill in the census," says Doyle, "it's a legal requirement, aside from anything else. I don't believe there is anything to fear from doing that.

"And, you know, once politicians and local government do have that picture, and realise that, actually, there are a lot of British Moroccans, British Yemenis or British Syrians in a particular area, they're far more likely to reach out to them, listen to their concerns, and establish a relationship."

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

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