Study self-identification of origin

Unia conducted a study on self-identification of ethnic or racial origin in Belgium. When collecting equality data, it can be useful to let people define their origin themselves. In this way it is possible to identify groups at risk of discrimination that are not identified if we only use administrative information such as nationality. The use of self-identification will give us a better understanding of the factors that lead to inequality and discrimination. 

    This study shows that when collecting equality data, efforts should be made to use self-identification where possible and appropriate, but under strict conditions. This study also formulates a number of recommendations and practical advice for applying self-identification of origin in Belgium.  

    Let's take three examples: Thomas, Marie and Ahmed are all Belgian, as are their parents. Yet each has already experienced discrimination: Thomas because of his Jewish background, Marie because of her black skin, Ahmed based on his name which does not sound 'Belgian'. If we are looking for data on discrimination and inequality, in their case, nationality is not a relevant measurement tool because it says nothing about the discrimination they have suffered. And if we asked them to define their origins themselves, what would they answer? 

    What is self-identification?   

    The principle of self-identification implies that data on personal characteristics (such as origin) should be provided by the individuals to whom the data refers, at their discretion.   

    With regard to origin, this can be done, for example, by asking the following questions: 'How do you define your origins?' 'Do you feel discriminated against because of your origins, if so, which ones?' 

    The use of self-identification when collecting equality data is a principle of the human rights-based approach to data, but it is currently not often used in Belgium.  

    Why is this study important?   

    In Belgium, self-identification for origin is not very common. Instead, administrative data such as a person's nationality and the nationality of their parents are often used. These are the so-called 'proxies' (= approximations of origin based on available information). 

    However, certain groups are treated unequally based on their origin, but unrelated to their nationality. The unequal treatment is then rather linked to other characteristics such as skin colour or Jewish descent. Self-identification of origin can fill some of the gaps when using only proxies. Combining data on origin based on self-identification on the one hand and proxies on the other hand can provide a more complete picture of discrimination and inequality.  

    What lessons have we learned from this study?  

    1. Self-identification offers an added value in identifying groups at risk of discrimination based on their origin 
    2. Self-identification should be used in a trauma-sensitive and human rights-based based approach. 
    3. The participation of the groups concerned should be paramount at every stage of the self-identification process.