Humanitarian Issues

Many Refugees, Poor Data: Development Cooperation Requires Higher-quality Data

Rowing boat on a house roof
Courtesy Norbert Nagel/Wikimedia Commons

This article was originally published by the German institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in August 2016.

In June 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presented his latest annual report on the situation of refugees and displaced persons around the world. Once again, this account documents new record levels in refugee numbers, both in industrialised and in developing countries. For governments and aid organisations, these statistics constitute an important basis for addressing displacement-related challenges in a more effective manner. However, the data provided by UNHCR is often incomplete and marked by a number of shortcomings. Increasingly high expectations are being placed on development cooperation in terms of tackling the root causes of forced displacement. Meeting these expectations requires reliable data.

Refugee crises can only be adequately addressed on the basis of comprehensive and reliable data. Displaced persons must be able to register as refugees in order to receive access to international protection and the related legal rights and aid. Host countries and communities depend on data pertaining to current displacement situations in order to plan the required services and provide the necessary administrative, personnel and material resources. The credibility of international aid organisations’ appeals for donations also rely on substantiated information about displacement situations.


One Man’s ‘Burden’ is Another’s Refugee

Eritrean refugee in Sudanese camp, Khashm el Girba / photo: daveblume/flickr
Eritrean refugee in Sudanese camp, Khashm el Girba / photo: daveblume/flickr

Every year, 20 June marks World Refugee Day . The UNHCR notes that for the 42 million uprooted people around the world, “a shortage or lack of the essentials of life – clean water, food, sanitation, shelter, health care and protection from violence and abuse – means that every day can be a struggle just to survive.”

So how could this situation be improved? In the first of his lectures as part of the Reith Lecture Series 2009 , Harvard professor Michael Sandel discusses the idea of tradable refugee quotas. In this system, each country would be allocated a yearly quota based on national wealth. Then, states would be free to buy and sell these obligations – and, according to market logic, everyone benefits: Countries unwilling to accept refugees meet their obligations through outsourcing, those willing to accept gain a new source of revenue, and more refugees are rescued than would otherwise find asylum.