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’. 


Migration to Europe: four myths about women and girls on the move

On a global scale, women and girls make up half of the world’s refugees and half of global migrants, but when it comes to those travelling to Europe, the story is quite different. According to the latest figures from Eurostat, females accounted for only 32% of all asylum applicants to EU countries in 2016 and have made up similarly low proportions for the past seven years.

Despite this, the proportion of women and girls among refugees and other migrants to Europe is increasing, especially among asylum seekers of certain nationalities. Compared to the year before, 2016 saw increased proportions of female applicants from all but one of the top ten nationalities of new arrivals to Europe – including a 47% increase in the proportion of women and girls from Iraq and 46% from Afghanistan.

So why is this happening? And will the gender balance continue to shift? We take a look at some myths and some facts to help explain what’s so remarkable about the migration of women and girls to Europe.

Myth 1: Cultural traditions mean that women are less likely to migrate than men

In the past two years, over 60% of all asylum seekers in the EU have originated from just five countries: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, all affected by war, ongoing conflict and chronic insecurity. Despite coming to Europe for the same main reasons – safety and security, followed by access to employment, education and healthcare – the proportion of women and girls among asylum seekers of each of these nationalities differs greatly. In 2016 for example, women and girls made up over a third of all Syrian asylum seekers – 36% – compared to 29% of those from Afghanistan and only 6% from Pakistan.

While the figures above clearly show that nationality plays a role – influenced in part by social and cultural norms – women are often active rather than passive actors in the decision to migrate. One assessment from the Western Balkans found that married women frequently reported that the decision to travel was taken jointly with their husbands, while a small minority of women had deliberately left ahead of male family members, believing it would be easier for them to be granted asylum. With evidence from Syria suggesting that ongoing conflict is changing traditional gender roles and leaving some women with increased access to employment, greater autonomy and aspirations of continued independence, it is possible that evolving cultural norms may bring further tangible change to the composition of migration flows in the future.

Myth 2: Girls are just as likely to travel as boys

The UN refugee agency provides data on arrivals by sea for women, men and children, grouping all those aged under 18 into a single category and reinforcing the idea that girls are travelling as often as boys. Eurostat data, however, shows greater numbers of boys than girls applying for asylum – of the 291,665 minors for whom information was available in 2016, boys accounted for 58% and girls 42%.

Grouping girls and boys together as simply “children” also fails to take into account the difference between children travelling with family members, and unaccompanied minors, who are ten times more likely to be male than female. According to the latest available figures from Eurostat, girls made up only 9% of all asylum applications by unaccompanied minors in 2015. Girls and boys have different specific needs and face differing levels of risk along the journey – grouping them together as children fails to take this into account.

Myth 3: Women and girls on the move face greater risks than men and boys

Early last year, news about the growing numbers of women arriving in Europe led to numerous reports on the specific risks they faced along the journey, including health complications, sexual and gender based violence, exploitation and trafficking. While of significant cause for concern, available evidence suggests that women and girls on the move face different levels of risk relative to men and boys at different moments of their migration, leaving them both more and less vulnerable to different threats – a nuance that is often overlooked.

One IOM study of 1,545 refugees and other migrants along the Eastern Mediterranean route found that men were more likely than women to report exposure to a range of risks, including being forced to work, held against their will, or not having received payment for work completed. While the short surveys of this study are not exhaustive and it is possible that protection incidents – particularly of a more sensitive nature – may have been under-reported, these findings show how men can often be more vulnerable to certain threats, especially those travelling alone.

Myth 4: Women are as likely to be granted asylum as men

Despite generally being considered a more vulnerable group by humanitarian responders, women and girls are actually slightly less likely than men and boys to file a successful claim for asylum in the EU. According to figures from Eurostat, 51% of female asylum applicants were rejected by EU states in 2015, compared to 49% of male applicants. According to a study of reception and asylum in Germany, women frequently struggled to access female interviewers, interpreters and childcare, adding to their difficulties to file a successful claim. Ensuring a gender-sensitive asylum application process is vital to ensure all cases receive fair consideration, regardless of gender.

So what now?

Since the formal closure of the Western Balkans route and general tightening of borders across Europe, women, men, boys and girls have continued to leave conflict-affected countries in search of asylum in Europe. While a lower overall number of new arrivals, 2016 saw more people travelling through “covert means” due to a lack of legal alternatives – a situation likely to continue into 2017. Such covert means include overstaying visas, using the services of smugglers, or travelling through other irregular means. For those hoping to join existing family members already in Europe, access to family reunification schemes will also continue to be important. Tightening restrictions suggest the process is getting more difficult, however, leading to fears that it may be at best drawn-out and at worst unattainable, and raising the possibility of increasing reliance upon more dangerous alternatives.

More information is available in our latest briefing paper: Women and girls on the move: a gender analysis of migration to Europe.

Figures on asylum applications and decisions are based on Eurostat’s database on Asylum and managed migration. Unless otherwise stated, figures for 2016 are collated from monthly data covering the period from January to October. Photo credit: Noe Falk Nielsen/DRC.

People on the move in the Middle East vulnerable again this winter

As the sixth winter since the Syrian refugee crisis began sets in, the need for winterisation support to vulnerable people on the move has again come to the fore. As detailed in MMP’s latest Mixed Migration Monthly Summary, November saw local media report the weather-related deaths of two children fleeing Mosul at the Rajm Slebi border crossing between Iraq and Syria, warnings of expected hypothermia cases at the Berm between Jordan and Syria, deadly rough seas in the Mediterranean and relocations of refugees and other migrants to warmer accommodation in Greece.

Photo: Serbia blankets – Info Park – Miodrag Cakic

Harsh conditions can be expected to bring further negative impacts this winter, as has happened in previous years. Winter storms have heavily affected refugee settlements in the past, and could easily recur again this season. Storms Alexia (December 2013) and Huda/Zeina (January 2015) swept across the Middle East damaging shelters and infrastructure and limiting the supply of emergency relief.

Fortunately winterisation response efforts are improving, with humanitarian responders learning year on year from past experience and establishing technical guidance. Organisations are increasingly ready to respond with the provision of emergency shelters and winter response packages, which include items such as sleeping bags, thermal blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes, and footwear. Cash too has become an important modality to respond to winter needs.

Refugees and other migrants, on the move or in protracted situations for multiple seasons, have slowly accumulated equipment and techniques to cope with the cold. Yet they also resort to negative coping mechanisms to survive the winter, reducing food consumption and taking on debt to pay for fuel, shelter and clothing.

Concerns are even greater for the newly displaced, numbers of whom have increased significantly in November. This winter coincides with major escalations in conflict in both Syria and Iraq. While plans to respond are in place and winter needs are clearly recognised, funding for winterisation programmes in the region remains well below what is necessary. As of mid-December, the largest funding gap for UNHCR’s Mosul response was for its winter programme.

Not only has the escalation in conflict caused new displacement, it has also facilitated returns, as control of areas changes and stability is restored in different places, particularly in Iraq. But with houses and infrastructure damaged and destroyed, and electricity and fuel in short supply, returnees too are likely to face a tough winter. It is a problem Afghan returnees are already facing as a major returns programme coincides with the onset of a harsh winter and inadequate shelter conditions.

Despite the fact that this winter brings new challenges, and preparedness is slowly improving, some problems remain the same: without the necessary funding commitments people on the move are likely to feel the consequences of the cold once again this year.



No way in, no way out: Apprehensions raise significant protection concerns along Turkey’s southern border

Up to 16,000 people have been displaced from Aleppo since government forces began a “renewed push” into the eastern part of the city on 15 November. Many have fled north towards the border with Turkey, and more can be expected as the fighting intensifies. They join an estimated 100,000 people already stranded on the Syrian side of the border. While international attention continues to focus on refugees and migrants entering, or attempting to enter, EU countries from Turkey, less consideration is given to the thousands of people trying to enter Turkey itself. Despite limited attention towards arrivals at the Turkish border, the number of people apprehended entering Turkey irregularly in October far exceeded the number who left in the same way.

Almost 100,000 people were reportedly apprehended along the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq in September and October alone. By comparison, the Turkish Coast Guard reported only 2,437 ‘irregular migrants’ leaving Turkey and attempting the crossing to Europe in October, a figure 94.2% smaller than the number apprehended entering the country by land in the same month.

Disproportionate attention to refugees crossing to Greece and limited information about the number of people who manage to cross Turkey’s land borders undetected risks ignoring a large group of potentially vulnerable refugees and other migrants, who in many ways are invisible to the media and public eye. While Turkish officials claim that the country maintains an ‘open door’ policy for emergency situations, the land border has been effectively closed since March 2015, with strict visa requirements for Syrians entering Turkey by air or sea making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to cross legally. While critical medical cases are being admitted through the two official border crossings that remain open with Syria, at most only 200 people are allowed entry per day – a fraction of the number apprehended by border guards when trying to cross irregularly.

Reports of violence, abuse, and deaths at the Turkey-Syria border only heighten concerns for the protection of people attempting to enter Turkey whilst fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq, although the Turkish government maintains that claims of violence “do not reflect the reality at the border.

Refugees and other migrants must also contend with the wall being constructed along Turkey’s 900km border with Syria – 200km of which has already been constructed. This project has a completion date of February 2017 and aims to fence off the entire border.

Figure 5: Individuals apprehended by Turkish authorities in October 2016

Syrians face physical and legal barriers to escape in other directions too. With an estimated 85,000 Syrians stuck at Syria’s border with Jordan, and strict visa requirements blocking the passage of refugees into Lebanon, exiting Syria has become an almost impossible task.

Nonetheless, it must be assumed that many do manage to flee into Turkey and onwards, with 2,970 refugees and other migrants arriving in Greece by sea in October alone. The 100,000 people apprehended by Turkish border guards throughout September and October make up just part of the total flow of refugees and other migrants entering Turkey irregularly.

Increased border restrictions often lead to irregular movements of people across borders, accompanied by increased risks for people on the move. IOM’s data shows that the number of people reporting experiences of trafficking or other exploitative practices along the Eastern Mediterranean route has increased from 6.5% in May, to 14% in September, a change likely tied to the closure of the Western Balkans route and the implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement. Reported experiences include people being held against their will by non-governmental authorities (often smugglers), forced labour, and lack of payment for work throughout the journey to Europe.

In the same way, hidden, or ignored, people moving irregularly into Turkey likely face significant vulnerability and protection concerns, which need further and immediate attention.

For more information on this and other mixed migration issues in the Middle East, please access the Mixed Migration Platform’s October Mixed Migration Summary (accessible here).

Mixed Migration Platform: A new data and information resource on mixed migration flows in the Middle East

Migration is not a new phenomenon. Despite this, the recent movement of tens of thousands of people, primarily from Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, to Europe has captured the public’s attention in new and staggering ways. This is particularly true of irregular migration. Given its unclear definition, a perceived lack of order marks it out as a ‘phenomenon’ that needs to be addressed.

The increase in the rate of migration of people to Europe over the course of the past three years has been a double-edged sword.

While it has shown that people on the move have critical needs, it has dominated the conversation, minimising the attention paid to other mixed migration movements in the Middle East, within different African regions and in Asia. As irregular migration to Europe has endured, attitudes towards people in mixed migration flows there, and further afield, have evolved. Initially people moving towards Europe – principally individuals in precarious protection situations – were welcomed and received with empathy; with continued arrivals, this compassionate reception shifted, and as borders became enforced the effects were felt all along the routes people travelled.

Mixed migration flows – which can be made up of refugees, asylum seekers, smugglers, traffickers, economic migrants, and other groups of displaced persons – are a reality of modern migration. They can be, and often are, non-linear and non-homogenous, and vary in size and composition (inclusive of race, nationality, religion, education and so on). In recent years the conflict in Syria has played a significant part in mixed migration flows to, within and from the Middle East; so too have conflict situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and countries in the Horn of Africa. The movements of people in the Middle East exist on a large and varied scale. With much of the attention focused specifically on Syrian nationals within these flows, information around the humanitarian, social, economic and political implications of the movement of other nationalities in the region has been less highlighted.

In relation to such large scale and enduring migration in the region, three things have become evident:

  1. Major information gaps exist and there is a need to undertake data gathering, research and analysis to address these.
  2. Advocacy around key issues relevant to mixed migration flows is needed.
  3. People moving irregularly often have acute and differing protection concerns, as well as key information needs.

In response to this, seven international NGOs (ACAPS, DRC, Ground Truth Solutions, IMPACT Initiatives, Internews, INTERSOS, and Translators with Borders) have come together to address these key issues regarding mixed migration in the Middle East and have created the Mixed Migration Platform (MMP). The platform’s work is divided into two pillars – the generation and dissemination of quality data, research and analysis to inform the policy, programming and advocacy work of relevant actors, and the provision of quality data to people within mixed migration flows moving to, within and from the Middle East. MMP will also strive to ensure the utility of the information generated through outreach including conferences, workshops, bilateral meetings and representation at key events.

As one MMP partner states, information changes lives, and with this in mind the platform will work to ensure the vulnerabilities of those within mixed migration flows, are addressed.

MMP has begun preliminary analysis and is in the process of developing a comprehensive website that will provide a repository for its work. While this development is in process, check back here for mixed migration related blog posts and content in the coming weeks.