Approximately 30 million people are living in Mexico as if they don’t exist. Many of them work in the service industry and contribute to the upward mobility of their nation. However, they are paid less, lack basic services, and are not recognized as citizens of the country they’re building. This is the life of families in informal settlements. 

Since the founding of Mexico, society has treated informal settlements as if they were invisible. They are left out of policies, shamed by citizens, and live literally unaccounted for as Mexico’s census has never included informal settlements. But change is on its way. 

Thanks to a recent lawsuit by Techo, a non-profit organization focused on building temporary shelters for families in informal settlements across the world, the Supreme Court of Justice is mandating the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) to include this population in the census. This is a historic win for informal settlements, but it’s only the first step to ensure the most vulnerable populations are provided access to their human rights. 

The UN defines an informal settlement as “a group of more than 10 houses on public or private land, built without the owner’s permission, without any legal formality and without complying with urban planning laws.” Families living in these communities are often hard-working people who have no other housing option.

Approximately 85% of Mexican workers are not subject to a housing loan since they earn less than six times the minimum salary. When families cannot obtain a loan, and the government provides minimal options for those not working in the formal economy, vulnerable communities are formed and neglected. Society often shames these communities by assuming they are lazy or deserving of their lower status. However, they invest much of their lives into bettering the economy that looks down on them. 

“Here, 1 of every 4 inhabitants of urban areas, lives in a slum, village, favela or camp, in a situation of poverty. Although not invisible, but invisible, these populations must subsist on their own, with the constant violation of their rights and the exhausting test of their resilience.” — Techo

When communities are not counted in the census, it violates the rights of entire populations. These families are not granted voting rights, which would be one of the main ways to create change for their communities. A lack of identification also restricts a person from access to hospitals and schools. Even basic services such as water, security, and public spaces are absent. Informal settlements reveal a history of unconstitutional decisions. 

A nation’s development hinges on its ability to house its people safely, but that starts by acknowledging every human. Up until now, informal settlements have not been acknowledged in the census mainly due to discrimination and political gain. 

Without a proof of address, nearly 30 million Mexicans have no form of identification and are living as if they do not exist. They are completely left out of the system. While they are not counted or treated as citizens, politicians only acknowledge their existence to build support for their campaigns. 

Politicians are known to offer empty promises to these communities rather than addressing the broader, systemic issues. Since there is no information on these settlements, there is no way to track progress towards solving the problems politicians promise to solve. Moreover, there is no pressure to solve the problem, because these people are not voting constituents. The lack of transparency and accountability make it easy for political parties to speak of doing good while never acting. Informal settlements are left feeling unseen and hopelessness grows over generations. 

The history of neglect has left this resilient population discouraged and wondering what it will take to create change. These families need advocacy. They need people recognizing their existence and fighting to shape policy that provides equality. The work starts with counting them as citizens.  

Nearly two years ago, Techo filed a lawsuit against INEGI for not including informal settlements in Mexico’s census. INEGI is the only official party responsible for collecting official information, which is then used to shape public policies. As a nonprofit working to overcome poverty in informal settlements, Techo knows community support starts with accurate data

“For instance, during COVID-19, there are public and private efforts to bring water to vulnerable communities, but informal settlements cannot be supported since they are not recognized as subjects of public policies. They are still considered a minor problem when data will prove it is a structural problem.” — Emilia García-Arteaga Molinar, Executive Director of Techo MX

Now that INEGI must include informal settlements in the census, they can provide the government, Techo, and every other party working to combat homelessness with the essential information needed to make informed decisions. For far too long, policies and systems have been designed without consideration of the most vulnerable population.

The new data will reveal the systemic gaps and put pressure on political parties to create real solutions that show progress. Since the Supreme Court of Justice mandates INEGI to take this action, INEGI now has the leverage to ask Congress for the appropriate budget to make the work possible. 

INEGI is required to share their plan for including informal settlements in the census by December. It took Techo and others years to accomplish this great feat, and it will take continued support to hold INEGI accountable.

This victory shows the possibility of change when vulnerable families have advocates who persistently push for their human rights. Hopefully this historic moment will empower more teams to take actions that support the most vulnerable communities. 

“We’re hoping this helps other countries follow the lead and demand informal settlements to be recognized. Time is critical because the population will keep moving to cities, and the problem will keep growing if we don’t take action.” — Emilia García-Arteaga Molinar

It takes an accurate depiction of any problem to build the best solutions. It also takes all sectors of a country —  private, public, and people —  working together. For informal settlements, this looks like developing leaders within the community that drive the families to work towards their own solutions. Social awareness is also necessary to generate volunteers to move towards informal settlements. And political advocacy is crucial for promoting the structural changes that ensure poverty declines.

Now that INEGI will include informal settlements in the next census, the structural inequality and lack of planning will be exposed. The decision to count this population has already catalyzed conversations, but the data will force every level of government to make the decisions it takes to solve the more significant problems. And 30 million people who live as if they did not exist will have an official identity and afforded access to their human rights. 

P.S. At New Story, we believe data is necessary to drive change. But we also know collecting information on the world’s most vulnerable communities is difficult. There are very few options that allow teams to collect data quickly and easily — so we built one. Felix is our data collection tool that allows any team to track their impact in real-time. You can check it out and try it for free here