Earlier this year, a Lebanese newspaper reported that 300,000 Syrian refugee children would be born in 2017. The news caused a frenzy in Lebanon, stoking fears that the growing refugee population would upset the country’s demographic balance.
But the figures were completely baseless. Technically, if the birth rate of Syrian refugees in Lebanon was as high as the fastest growing countries in the world, around 5 percent a year, the number of newborns would not exceed 80,000. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that a total of 100,000 Syrians were born in Lebanon between 2011 and 2016.
This is just one of many examples of the need for rigorous refugee data, especially in countries that shelter the most refugees. Discussing the refugee crisis in countries neighboring Syria is not easy. It is emotional and political, especially in Lebanon, where a fragile sectarian balance hangs by a string.
Using – and even more importantly, understanding – reliable data can be the basis for a more substantial discussion on the challenges of hosting refugees. In the age of smartphones and “big” and “open” data, finding information on Syrian refugees is not as difficult as it was during previous global refugee crises. Yet reliable analysis of the data is limited in Lebanon and other parts of the region.
When it exists, this analysis comes in dense reports that are neither accessible nor appealing to the public. To make things more complicated, public opinion is mired with confirmation bias as perceptions and emotions tend to take precedence over facts.
Our digital platform Bayanat Box launched a campaign this June to visualize data about refugees in the region in collaboration with the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. We aimed to provide a more nuanced perspective, showing the significant social and economic pressures of hosting refugees, while also noting evidence that, in some cases, refugees can be a positive opportunity for host communities.
For example, an impact evaluation conducted by the International Rescue Committee on a UNHCR cash aid program to Syrian refugees in Lebanon found that while aid benefited the refugees, it also benefited the Lebanese economy. Every $1 of cash aid, generated $2.13 for the economy.
This campaign helped us understand how the Arab public consumes data-driven content. It had a reach of more than half a million social media users, and engagement levels were high, especially for Arabic content. Interactions varied from people expressing shock to sympathy. This strengthened our belief in the need for more “public-friendly” evidence-based content on refugees, especially in Arabic.
Bayanat Box is now working on a new visual and evidence-based campaign about the livelihoods of Syrians who stayed in the country, factors that push Syrians to leave their homes, and refugees’ decisions to return.
There are misconceptions among politicians, the media and citizens about refugees’ ability to return to their countries. In particular, Lebanon’s political leaders are already painting a picture that refugees will go back immediately, without consideration of studies suggesting the opposite.
Research from other displacement crises shows that the majority of refugee returns happen between one and three years after the end of a conflict. But not all choose to return. When deciding when and where to do so, refugees consider not only safety conditions, but also whether they have a physical home to return to, as well as access to economic opportunities and basic services.
These conditions are far from being in place in Syria, with around one-third of houses damaged or destroyed, 2.7 million jobs lost, and two-thirds of the population living in extreme poverty. These substantial but overlooked numbers must be part of the debate about refugees’ ability to return home.
We know that data in itself is not a silver bullet for the refugee crisis, but it is definitely a good start to elevate the current debate. With data comes the possibility to correct misconceptions and change public attitudes. We need to make sure that data is accessible and comprehensible to all; not least among them the populations who live alongside the largest numbers of refugees.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.