Numbers Matter: The Challenges of Inconsistent Data on Displacement and Migration

At the end of 2015, some 65.3 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide, 39% of them from the Middle East or North Africa. With numbers likely higher in 2016, protecting the displaced remains an important and ongoing issue. Why then are accurate and consistent figures regarding refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants often so difficult to find?

In a recent opinion piece, Paul Currion, a former aid worker, argues that “without knowing the numbers, it is impossible to make the right decisions about how to respond, with policy or in practice”. Understanding the scale of displacement, and those affected by it, is imperative to the provision of appropriate aid and policy responses. Yet “the numbers” are not always accurate, when they are available to policy makers and humanitarian groups at all.

A case in point came in 2015 when Nando Sigona, Deputy Director of the Institute for Research into Superdiversity at the University of Birmingham, noted major discrepancies in the EU’s migrant arrival figures for the first nine months of 2015. FRONTEX claimed that as of September, some 710,000 refugees and other migrants had crossed the EU’s external borders in 2015, an “unprecedented inflow of people”. These figures were significantly higher than those reported by the UN (588,247 arrivals from January to October) and IOM (593,432 through 12 October), a fact later explained by FRONTEX’s admission that people had been double counted if they crossed multiple EU borders.

Similar issues abound when it comes to collecting data on children and young people on the move in Europe. Differing definitions of children travelling alone in Europe, and diverse methods of counting those who fall under particular definitions, have led to inconsistencies when comparing the number of unaccompanied minors in various countries. EU member states differ in their national definitions of ‘unaccompanied minor’ especially with respect to age and what it means to be ‘unaccompanied’. Additionally, some countries include all people who claim to be unaccompanied minors (without age assessments) in their statistics, while others only include those whose age has been confirmed. In Spain, data is provided in distinct formats in various regions, while the four nations of the UK all collect and publish statistics in different ways. Double counting of unaccompanied minors is reportedly common in Italy, where children may be recorded by more than one local authority at the same time as the pass through various cities and regions, mainly a result of limited coordination between databases.

The impetus for this blog came from difficulties faced by MMP when collecting data for the December Monthly Migration Summary (available here). Escalating violence in Mosul and the surrounding areas in October, November, and December has forced some thousands of Iraqis to flee across the Syrian border, and in particular to the Al-Hol refugee camp in Al-Hasakeh governorate. Available figures for people affected by this displacement, however, vary considerably and paint an unclear picture of the situation. According to UNHCR, as of 31 December, 6,204 Iraqis have fled to Syria from Mosul since 17 October, while WFP figures indicate the number is closer to 12,000. Al Jazeera goes further still, reporting that 14,000 Iraqis crossed the Syrian border from Mosul in the span of a month. At worst, these inconsistencies may have profound implications for policy and aid decisions concerning the protection of vulnerable and displaced people, while at best they make it difficult to understand the precise magnitude of the situation, and to calculate the number of people fleeing.

The issue of data consistency and reliability is a difficult one that will require innovative approaches and collaborative efforts to address. Currion acknowledges that there are valid reasons for flawed data and inaccurate numbers including practical obstacles that accompany data collection on mobile populations, as well as methodological questions regarding exactly who to count and where. Data on displaced populations may also be highly politicised when, for example, it is in the interest of a government to downplay or exaggerate a crisis. These obstacles represent a unique opportunity for data sharing and collaboration between humanitarian organisations, governments, the media, and other relevant groups. With displacement in the Middle East as complex and protracted as it is, reliable and consistent information is imperative to creating policy and aid responses that meet the protection needs of all vulnerable people on the move.

This is the first in an ongoing series of blogs on the theme ‘Numbers Matter’.