Global Migration: Does it matter if we call it a ‘crisis’?

“Crisis” is a word ubiquitous in today’s popular, academic, and policy discussions about migration and displacement, whether we’re talking about those who brave the journey across the Mediterranean in the search for better livelihoods in Europe, the Rohingya fleeing mass atrocities in Myanmar, or Syrians and Yemenis forced from one town to another in their war-torn countries. The UNHCR characterized the 65.6 million individuals displaced by the end of 2016 as constituting a “new: unprecedented high.” Only a year earlier, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi referred to 2016 being a “watershed moment for the refugee cause”, given the scale of a global situation for which there was “no precedent”. Even the broader phenomenon of international migration is presented as exceptional in it having grown faster than the world’s population With such language that emphasizes not only the urgency but the historical uniqueness of the current state of affairs, how does today’s challenge stack up against previous trends in displacement? One area of particular concern is statistics for internally displaced people (IDPs), driven from their homes either by conflict or natural disasters.

Data on the number of IDPs: Concerns of accuracy, completeness and reliability

At the end of 2016, the UNHCR estimated the number of conflict-affected IDPs worldwide at 36.63 million, over twice the number of refugees. The latter, as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, are those who are unable or unwilling, based upon a well founded fear of persecution, to return to the country of their nationality. The UNHCR is globally responsible for tracking refugees, those who cross an international border, and has done so since the organization was created in 1950.

But since the post-Cold War uptick in intra-state conflicts, the international community has increasingly expanded its attention not only to the protection of those fleeing persecution across borders but also to those forcibly displaced within their home countries. Yet for those who wish to study internal displacement, the absence of reliable and consistent longitudinal data makes it difficult to historicize the phenomenon and formulate policy recommendations. Thus while the 40.8 million IDPs in 2015 constitute a record-breaking peak, we need to examine more closely the quality of those records before making any further claims about the acuteness of the magnitude of contemporary internal displacement.

Political biases as well as logistical and technical capacities impinge upon the ability to accurately estimate displacement in general, whether we’re talking about IDPs or refugees. However, in the case of the former, the absence of deliberate data collection efforts constitutes a more fundamental problem. Despite significant improvements since the mid 1990s, even today, no single agency is responsible for or capable of tracking IDP numbers world wide. As a “crucial element of sovereignty,” the burden to protect and provide assistance to IDPs still falls primarily on the shoulders of national governments, with the international community playing a complementary role. This is problematic on three fronts. First, official state figures are likely to grossly understate the extent of displacement in contexts where the state itself is carrying out acts of persecution and oppression against its residents. Second, not all governments have the bureaucratic and technical resources to effectively measure displacement even if they wish to. And third, figures provided by international governmental and nongovernmental aid agencies are likely to under-report or even ignore populations of IDPs they are unable to access.

To illustrate this point, consider first the following observations about commonly cited sources for data on IDPs. The UNHCR has recorded and published numbers of IDPs, globally and by country, only since 1993, after the first-ever appointment of a UN Representative on IDPs the previous year. However, data on its Population Statistics Database reflects only conflict-affected IDPs who receive UNHCR protection or assistance. For a more inclusive estimate, the UNHCR refers to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC). In turn, the IDMC relies on information provided by a range of governmental, international, and non-governmental agencies including the IOM UNOCHA, and, somewhat circularly, the UNHCR itself. Moreover, although IDMC has collected data on conflict-driven internal displacement since 1998, data available online goes only as far back as 2008.


Another source, the Center for Systemic Peace dataset, Forcibly Displaced Populations 1964-2008, accounts for IDPs from 1964 onwards using the US Committee on Refugees and Immigrants’ World Refugee Survey (WRS) and then relies on IDMC data after 2006. Yet WRS data, both on refuges and IDPs, is also based on secondary sources including national governments and a plethora of international agencies such as UNHCR, ICRC, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International to name a few. In the case of IDPs, the WRS explicitly notes that their figures are general, inconclusive estimates at best. WRS data, first published in 1961, is also surprisingly difficult to find in the first place. Having been discontinued in 2009, the online archive of past reports is incomplete, barely accessible, and almost unnavigable. Complete online archives are available only for reports published after 2002. Google “World Refugee Survey” and you’ll be able to access individual country reports on the UNHCR’s RefWorld website, but only those from 1997 onwards. For earlier reports, you’ll most likely have to find a way to get your hands on physical copies.

The trouble is that all these sources–heavily relied upon by scholars and peacebuilding, humanitarian and development practitioners conducting needs and conflict assessments– provide varying estimates of IDPs in the same country in the same year. For instance, was the number of IDPs in Afghanistan 1.55 million (IDMC) or 1.79 million (UNHCR) in 2016? In the case of Syria, if one were to rely on UNHCR figures which only go back to 2012, internal displacement would seem to be a direct outcome of the current civil war. However, IDMC data indicates the presence of 433,000 IDPs in 2009, two years before the uprising.

Even when relying on a single, supposedly consolidated, source, IDP numbers are likely historically under-reported. Looking at WRS data on Lebanon for 1982-83 i.e. in the middle of the country’s 15-year long civil war, the number of IDPs is placed at 60,000. This figure is hardly believable, given the extensive scale of the fighting since 1975 and that Israel had just invaded the south of the country in mid-1982. In fact, the very next year, WRS’ IDP estimate for the country jumps to 600,000. Similarly, for both Iran and Iraq, WRS estimates of IDPs during the initial years of their bloody 1980-88 war are conspicuously patchy or missing[1]. A frequently cited estimate of the total number of casualties—including those killed and injured—stands at 1 million, for the entire duration of the conflict[2]. Give this figure, one would also expect significant levels of internal displacement to have occurred from the onset along both countries’ border areas. Yet no figures for this are available.

Even when data from ostensibly authoritative sources is available, concerns about methodology can jeopardize its reliability. Consider the UN estimate of the number of people killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda between 1987 and 2012. In 2013, then Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon cited an OHCHR report placing the number of those killed at 100,000. While this figure was widely circulated and cited in the media and scholarship, the former High Commissioner Navi Pillay later stated that the relevant report has been retracted due to difficulties in compiling the data[3]. The dearth of consolidated efforts to even collect data only heightens the probability of similar issues plaguing available figures on IDPs.

Discrepancies in the data become more anomalous when looking at global IDP estimates. A 1991 report commissioned by the UN’s Economic and Social Council, and referenced in later UN documents, estimated the number of IDPs at the time to be 24 million. According to the UNHCR, in 1993–the first year for which the agency has separate IDP figures–the number of IDPs worldwide was just 4.19 million. Let us now assume that both these figures are good approximations. Even if we consider the fact that the UNHCR does not factor in natural disaster-caused displacement, how likely is it that within a span of 2-3 years the number of IDPs actually fell by nearly 20 million? Not very, especially considering the political and often violent turmoil that marked the early 1990s, from Somalia to Afghanistan to the Balkans.

This being said, the unavailability of data on internal displacement caused by droughts and other natural disasters also contributes to the underestimation of the phenomenon historically. The IDMC has tracked disaster-driven displacement on an event-by-event basis only since 2003. The WRS, although acknowledging displacement caused by natural disasters, does not provide any disaggregation based on causes of displacement.

The politics of data: Why it matters who we count

The takeaway from all of this isn’t that we should stop relying on data provided by the UNHCR or the IDMC. Nor should we underestimate the extent of the challenges posed by internal displacement and the marginalization of those forced to abandon their homes but remain within their country of nationality/residence. Rather, those of us who study issues of internal displacement, whether as scholars or humanitarian practitioners, need to be weary of analyzing current crises solely in terms of their numerical magnitude. Just because the available data stretches only as far back as the most recent of recent history, it does not mean the “trend’ of internal displacement is of itself somehow novel. The increasing attention paid to internal displacement is certainly a function of the international community’s greater awareness of the issue and a marker of the challenge humanitarian and human rights norms pose to traditional statist conceptions of sovereignty.

But it is naïve to assume that forced internal displacement is a reality states, international organizations, and development and humanitarian agencies were unable to confront merely due to the absence of data. The collection and dissemination of data about the marginalized and vulnerable is just as political as the decision to offer or withhold aid. Keeping track of refugee flows is important because the very act of crossing national borders is subversive to the notion of state sovereignty. In the case of IDPs, the fact that they remain within internationally-recognized borders automatically downgrades their priority, making them the responsibility of states that are either unable or unwilling (often both) to assist them.

In constantly and uncritically using the language of crises, we risk overlooking other factors that contribute to internal displacement, and to the forced movement of people more generally, as well as undermining mechanisms that might help address core problems. “Solutions”, like the EU’s border-management-focused measures to limit migration and refugee flows across the Mediterranean, myopically emphasize regulating and stopping the movement of people rather than targeting the causes of forced displacement in the first place.



[1] World Refugee Survey, 1982-1986. US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Print.

[2] p.8, footnote 5. Sick, Gary and Lawrence G. Potter eds. Iran, Iraq, and the Legacies of War, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[3] qtd. in pp. 22-23..Conley, Bridget. “What Counts at the End? Questioning Consensus in the Construction of Mass Atrocity Narratives” Global Responsibility to Protect 9 (2017): 15-37.

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