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Talk of an ‘unprecedented’ number of refugees is wrong – and dangerous

‘We really don’t know if more people are displaced today than at any point in the past.’

Refugees in Berlin, 1945 German Federal Archives
Refugees in Berlin, 1945

“The number of refugees worldwide,” Richard Branson said last week, “has reached unprecedented proportions.” The British businessman was speaking at an event hosted by the International Rescue Committee. On the same day, the BBC reported that more people are displaced than ever before: 70.8 million, or one in every 110 people in the world.

The claim that a record number of people are displaced has been a staple of humanitarian advocacy in the last few years, getting a boost each time UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, updates its annual statistics.

But is it true?

Probably not. At best, it is misleading and, when used for advocacy purposes, probably counterproductive.

These claims are usually incorrect for two reasons.

First, the people making them rarely know any history.

During World War II, as many as 200 million people were displaced in Europe and Asia – nearly 100 million in China alone. The number of displaced people in the world would have to double or triple to approach truly “record-breaking” or “unprecedented” levels.

Second, we simply don’t have adequate statistics over time.

UNHCR has been collecting decent statistics on the people covered by its mandate since 1951, with UNRWA counting Palestinian refugees from 1948. But UNHCR’s original mandate was narrow: to assist refugees displaced from Europe before 1 Jan 1951. Only after 1967 did UNHCR have a responsibility for all refugees everywhere in the world (except Palestinians).

But the bigger knowledge gap is internally displaced people, who make up about two thirds of the total number of displaced persons in UNHCR’s current figures.

UNHCR has only had any responsibility for IDPs since the mid-90s, and there are few reliable statistics before that. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva has been trying to collect reliable statistics for IDPs since the 1990s, but they are hard to count, not least because governments – which may be to blame for the displacement – usually don’t want anyone to count them.

Historical displacement figures don’t tend to include the 10 million or more people displaced by the partition of British India, or the three million or so Algerian Muslims forcibly relocated during the war for independence from France; they also don’t include those displaced by the Great Leap Forward famine or the cultural revolution in China. The number of people missing certainly runs to tens of millions.

All this means we really don’t know if more people are displaced today than at any point in the past. So: such claims are usually incorrect.

They’re also highly misleading, because the absolute figures are less important than the relative figures.

Relative to the total global population, today’s figures are not exceptional.

In the late 1940s, the world population was about two billion: the figure of up to 200 million displaced during and after World War II means that almost 10 percent of the total human population of the planet was, or had recently been, displaced. Today’s 70.8 million out of about 7.7 billion is under one percent of the total human population, a much smaller proportion.

The key issue is not the scale of population displacement, it’s the political will to resolve it.

But it isn’t just relative population size that matters. If the global population today is nearly four times bigger than it was in 1945, the global economy is vastly larger again. The world’s economic capacity to support displaced people is much greater than it was in the 1940s, or the 1970s, or the 1990s. And we have enormously more effective state, international, and non-governmental agencies to provide assistance, too.

So the scale of displacement is relatively much smaller than it has been in the past, and the available means of support are immensely greater and more effective. This is why it’s misleading to stress that there are “record” or “unprecedented” numbers of displaced people, especially when the key issue is not the scale of population displacement, it’s the political will to resolve it.

So why are such claims not just incorrect and misleading, but also counterproductive?

Humanitarians make these claims in good faith. Presumably, they believe that stressing the supposedly unprecedented scale of contemporary displacement will mobilise public and political support. They think that the public will be moved to donate money, and perhaps their time and energy as campaigners or volunteers. They think that governments will be moved to fund humanitarian action, or to act directly for themselves, by seeking diplomatic solutions to displacement-causing crises, by increasing the number of resettlement places they make available, and so on.

Perhaps these beliefs are correct – in some cases. But I’d argue that they are just as likely to have the opposite effect. Stressing the “unprecedented scale” of displacement may create a sense of horror or helplessness in the face of such a vast problem, leading to paralysis rather than action.

If the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and people fleeing inside their own country is more than the population of Colombia, the UK, or Kenya, then how could Colombia, the UK, or Kenya be expected to take them all? Sometimes the rejection is more active than this, when “millions of refugees banging at the door” are represented as a threat: then there’s a great risk that talking about the “unprecedented scale” of current displacement will fuel a more general anti-immigrant political discourse.

There’s also a more fundamental problem, which we often see in statistics about refugees and displacement.

Talking about the unprecedented scale of current displacement reduces the complexity of many different displacements, with many different causes, to a single and impossibly huge ‘crisis’. This is likely to make members of the public, or politicians, less able to understand and contextualise specific displacements, and less able to imagine smaller-scale but more practicable solutions. And it reduces millions of different individual lives to this one big number, 70.8 million.

This is a problem, because you can’t feel sympathy for a statistic.

By abstracting individual humans out of the picture, stressing the “record number” of displaced people risks decreasing, not increasing, public sympathy and support.

The world’s displaced people deserve better than that.

(TOP PHOTO: Refugees wait for transport, Berlin, June 1945.)

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