The largest refugee crisis since World War II, claim the headlines: 4 million people displaced from Syria.
Yet it isn’t the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. That dubious honor goes to the Partition of India in 1947, when 14 million Muslims and Hindus were forced to move. It’s not even the biggest refugee crisis since World War II in Europe, as 12 million Germans were expelled from various central European countries from the end of the war until 1950.
Welcome to the numbers game, where we try to answer what appears to be the central question: Whose refugee crisis is worse? It’s a pointless game to play, as every crisis is the worst for those who have lost their homes – and not a competition where only the “winners” deserve the world’s attention for their losses.
Yet numbers are important. Without knowing the numbers, it is impossible to make the right decisions about how to respond, with policy or in practice.
It’s natural for states to prioritize their own circumstances regarding population movements. E.U. governments are justified in worrying more about their own countries than about Turkey, but that doesn’t justify a policy perspective in which 1 million migrants arriving in the E.U. are seen as a threat to an entire civilization, while 2.5 million refugees in Turkey is treated as business as usual.
In the long run, it is also not pragmatic to overlook Turkey’s conditions as these refugees will eventually head toward Europe, as they already have, with the largest numbers arriving from the Turkish coast in 2015.
Without understanding the realities that statistics are meant to convey, we can also fall victim to falsehoods, like the right-wing nationalist narrative that the refugee influx has led to a “rape epidemic” in Europe. Such an epidemic is almost entirely imaginary – a product of misunderstanding statistics and cognitive bias among politicians and parts of the public.
The problem is that humans – individually and collectively – are very poor at dealing with statistics.
Let’s start with a statistic that is indisputable: The Syrian conflict is the biggest refugee crisis of the 21st century. Yet do we know how many of those refugees have actually reached Europe?
Last year, questions were raised about how Frontex (the E.U. border cooperation agency) counted migrants, leading to Frontex clarifying that a large number of the people “who were counted when they arrived in Greece were again counted when entering the E.U. for the second time through Hungary or Croatia.”
The lack of clarity over how much such double-counting affects the official statistics exposes the difficulties of obtaining accurate statistics related to refugees. When we dig deeper, the problem becomes even more complicated and pressing, as we’ve seen recently with allegations that the E.U. has lost track of as many as 10,000 unaccompanied minors.
It is impossible to confirm the accuracy of the 10,000 figure, and this is a large part of the problem. It could be much larger or smaller due to a lack of coordination between the different European borders and entry points that these children might have passed through. But no matter how shaky a statistic is, when it is picked up by the media, it starts to be treated as a fact. A headline figure such as 10,000 missing children makes for good press, but the half-life of such statistics can make them problematic in the long run, closing down discussions rather than opening up practicable solutions.
Another example of this is the widely-cited figure that the average stay in a refugee camp is 17 years – a figure that turned out to be completely untrue. It is vital to build a clearer picture about where refugees really are, but in this case debunking the figure also runs the risk of obscuring the fact that life in a refugee camp is often intolerable for any amount of time.
Statistics on refugee numbers are flawed for good reasons. There are practical obstacles to accurately counting refugees, especially when they are mobile. There are also methodological questions about exactly who to count, since not everybody who crosses a border is a refugee in the legal sense. Whether they are on the road, or in camps and informal communities, refugee numbers are often vague and always changing.
For example, when the humanitarian community needed to know the potential number of Afghan returnees from Pakistan in 2001, we had no basis for a solid estimate. We simply guessed a number and added 50 percent to it. This might seem irresponsible but there was no alternative, as we needed a basis for planning assistance to returnees. (Fifteen years later, the problems of Afghan returnees have still not been resolved.)
This is not a new problem that arose solely because of recent Mediterranean crossings. As Jeff Crisp wrote in 1999, “refugee statistics will always be a source of controversy and dispute.” Since then we’ve become slightly better at collecting and working with refugee statistics, but the statistics themselves have become so politicized that numbers are wielded like weapons.
We shouldn’t have to play the numbers game, yet play it we must. It’s the difference between protecting asylum seekers and refugees, or leaving them invisible to the system and hence susceptible to abuse.
Amid the lack of clarity, one fact is not up for debate: The number of people on the move, either voluntarily or involuntarily, is greater than at any point in history. In this age of migration, only better data can provide the basis for better policy, and only better understanding of the statistics will make the debate more constructive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.