Statistics on Forced Migration
By Bela Hovy
September 1, 2002
Reporting on a UN meeting, a recent New York Times article lamented the poor
state of international migration data. The story ("UN Coaxes Out the Wheres
and Whys of Global Immigration," July 7, 2002) points out a lack of official
data and harmonized definitions, weak analytical tools, and abuse by officials
as the underlying reasons for this deplorable situation.
However, the above assessment does not apply to all aspects of international
population movements. The picture for asylum and refugee statistics, for
instance, appears less bleak. Statistics on international forced migration are
available for virtually all countries, are frequently updated, and are
comparable among countries. What is the main reason for this qualitative
difference between asylum and refugee statistics on the one hand, and those on
international migration on the other?
A Wealth of Statistics
Four critical factors contribute to the relative wealth of refugee and asylum
statistics. First, there is the global refugee convention. Most countries
have signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its
1967 Protocol, and have implemented the provisions in their national laws.
Second, the convention clearly defines who a refugee is: someone who is living
outside his or her country of origin and who has a well-founded fear of
persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a
particular social group, or political opinion.
Third, together with the convention, a global international agency was created
to oversee its implementation. Both the convention and the mandate of the
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refer
explicitly to the obligation of countries to provide statistical data.
Clearly, the drafters of the convention realized that statistics from
governments were a key element in protecting and assisting refugees.
Fourth, refugees form a special group of people crossing international borders.
While countries have the sovereign right to determine which foreigner has the
right to enter and stay, refugees are an exception. States are obliged to
admit refugees as long as they are in need of protection. This unique right
ensures that refugees are carefully screened, registered, documented, and thus...
Continuous Data Collection
The means to implement the laws are as important as the laws themselves. With
more than 4,000 staff in 120 countries, the UNHCR is in daily contact with refugees, governments of host countries,
and countries of origin. The office works with over 500 partners to implement
refugee programs. Its global presence and infrastructure ensure a continuous
gathering of information on refugees, including numbers and profiles.
Obviously, it is much easier to collect data through the intermediary of UNHCR
country offices than to wait for national bureaucracies to respond to a
questionnaire from a faraway international body. Being "refugee
professionals," UNHCR officials are not simply experts in collecting information.
They also provide, through their daily contact with officials, training on
standards, including the ways to count and record refugees.
In order to count properly, you need very strong motivations. In the case of
asylum seekers and refugees, providing protection and rendering assistance
appear to be very good ones. However, although asylum and refugee statistics
are widely and increasingly available, they are not free from problems. There
are four main weak points:
First, the very fact that the amount of data is rapidly growing has
implications for their comparability. In Germany, for instance, the number of
data elements reported by asylum authorities grew from five at a point 10 years
ago to 21 today. Such increases in detail make it harder to compare country
experiences as long as the data are based on national asylum law. Indeed, the
growing complexity of asylum statistics reported by industrialized countries
poses a challenge to analyzing international trends. Areas in which the asylum
data have become increasingly complex include appeals processes; persons
allowed to remain for reasons other than convention grounds; reasons for
formally rejecting claims; and processes for not admitting claims to the asylum
procedure. Clearly, an important factor in the rapid increase in availability
of refugee and asylum data is technology, which allows for a much more
efficient sharing of data from administrative systems.
Second, the New York Times article made specific reference to the tendency on
the part of officials to inflate or obscure migration trends. This danger is
relatively strong in the area of asylum and refugees. The UNHCR data are
widely used by officials and the media to defend or criticize positions and
policies. Yet, statisticians do not have much say in the use of "their" data beyond the presentation and basic analysis they provide. Indeed, the
statistical goals of objectivity and transparency allow users to draw their own
conclusions. Providing data in an impartial and balanced manner is the best
data producers can do. It is up to analysts to make good use of the data.
Third, although the UN refugee convention spells out the definition of a
refugee, its interpretation may be subject to debate. Whereas the objective
factors causing a refugee to flee are relatively easy to document (for example,
war, persecution of a particular ethnic group, etc.), individual motives are
more subject to interpretation. Moreover, refugee definitions may change over
time: groups considered refugees one year may be dropped from the national
statistics the next, and vice versa. UNHCR statistics generally reflect
the government's position, which may sometimes differ from the interpretation
of non-governmental organizations. In short, defining who is a refugee may not
be as easy at it appears.
Fourth, data coverage is uneven and depends on the purpose and method of data
collection. As a general rule, refugees benefit from being counted because it
increases their access to safety and services. This is evident in refugee
camps, where official registration data often overestimate the size of the
resident population: it is easier to register than to de-register people. The
opposite is true for those refugees who are not dependent on international
assistance or whose stay is relatively safe. These refugees tend to be
underreported by international agencies.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs), although they are by definition not
international migrants, merit some consideration here because they move for the
same reasons as refugees. However, while their reasons for displacement may be similar,
UNHCR's experience shows a great gap in data quality between refugees and
internally displaced. IDP estimates are often very rough, and they tend to
differ greatly in terms of the source (governments, international agencies,
What are the main reasons for this gap in data quality? First, the internally
displaced do not benefit from the same level of international protection and
assistance as refugees. There is no specific international convention
protecting IDPs. Also, there is no single international body entrusted with
their protection and assistance. Second, IDP movements typically involve short
distances, and often, short time frames. Third, as in the case of voluntary
migratory patterns, internal movements are much less recorded than
international movements. The inherent interest of a receiving country in who
is entering is absent in the case of internal movements, which are free of
restrictions and subject to fewer administrative hurdles. Fourth, considering
that they are still living in the country where they have been persecuted, the
internally displaced may be less willing to register than those who enjoy the
protection of their asylum country.
This article was contributed by Bela Hovy, Head, Population Data Unit,
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Geneva. The views and
opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the
views of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
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