Jeff Crisp of Refugees International (formerly head of UNHCR’s in house think tank) recently retweeted great article on the methodological and political troubles associated with refugee statistics. The article is 15 years old, and still incredibly current. It should be required reading for everyone who has any intention of talking about forced migration intelligently.
With that inspiration, let me resurrect a short note I wrote back in 2009 about a single dubious refugee statistic that irritated me throughout my career in the Middle East: The question of how many Sudanese (and, by extension, Sudanese refugees) live in Egypt. Here’s the note (and please understand that its references have not been updated since I originally wrote it):
How Many Sudanese Are There in Egypt? (2009)
For years, whenever the subject of Sudanese refugees in Egypt comes up, journalists, human rights groups and scholars have been making statements like this one:
Estimates of the number of Sudanese nationals in Egypt vary widely, ranging from 750,000 to 4 million.
No one has much interest in scrutinizing the basis of the claim, and many interests are served by repeating it. The claim of millions of Sudanese in Egypt serves government, which wants international support and sympathy for hosting migrants, and it serves refugee activists who want to gain support for their projects by making the refugee problem appear larger than it would on the basis of UNHCR numbers alone (officially, there are fewer than 50,000 registered non-Palestinian refugees in Egypt, around half of those Sudanese).
Where did the larger numbers come from? At the high end, these estimates would mean one in every 20 people in Egypt is a Sudanese national. Possible, but still quite a statement. This particular quotation appears in the American University in Cairo’s 2006 report on the Mustafa Mahmoud protest and massacre. It cites another AUC report, which says:
The Egyptian government sources quote usually a number raging between 3 and 4 million, with the Sudanese opposition groups indicating 2.2 million.
No references are given about where the government sources said this, but at least we know the source was originally official. Indeed, in 2006, the Egyptian ambassador to Sudan said in the press that there were more than 4 million Sudanese in Egypt.
But where does the Egyptian Government get this information from? The big numbers go back well before 2006. A Canadian Government document has references from 2000 estimating “2 to 5 million Sudanese in Egypt,” again with no explanation of where the numbers come from. The Carnegie Endowment has a record of discussions from 1999 citing an estimate of three million.
We know that there have been recent controversies about the number of Iraqi refugees in Egypt, with the government claiming more than 100,000, and academic and UN data estimating around one fifth that number.
I have been unable to find any original source for the “millions of Sudanese in Egypt” factoid, and if anyone knows its origin I would be grateful to know about it. But on the assumption that the source is unknown, it is important to ask why the “millions” claim is so widely repeated.The main point is that there are many Sudanese in Egypt, and that those who flee persecution or violence and seek protection at UNHCR are the minority.
There are also many Egyptian citizens who have Sudanese background. UNHCR’s registration figures may be a moderate undercount of the refugee population in Egypt, because there are a few forced migrants who don’t register, and there are other genuine refugees who have been errantly rejected by UNHCR in flawed refugee status determination procedures. But this undercount is offset by the fact that some refugees who are counted by UNHCR may have actually left Egypt (for Israel, Libya, Europe or home).
As a rough, working figure, I would put the non-Palestinian refugee population in Egypt at close to the UNHCR figure. But are there millions of Sudanese refugees in Egypt? It’s a big claim, and I think people should stop making it until someone can identify where it comes from, and we can assess whether it is actually true.
Earlier this month, Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance’s Egypt program announced that it would merge with a younger Cairo-based organization, the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (EFRR).
One has to hope for the best. AMERA-Egypt has in many ways been the flagship of the movement to expand legal aid for refugees in global south, serving as a model for organizations in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. But while it’s programs refugee rights programs have been pathbreaking, it has always been difficult for AMERA to develop a stable institutional foundation.
For the program now known as AMERA-Egypt, this will be the third major change in institutional structure since Prof. Barbara Harrell-Bond began having young lawyers and interns advise refugees in vacant American University in Cairo office buildings some 13 years ago. Earlier this year AMERA sounded the alarm about a funding crisis.
EFRR and AMERA are describing the merger as an effort to build a “strong, unified” refugee rights organization. But a country as large as Egypt should easily be able to support multiple organizations. How many immigrant legal aid programs are there in New York or Los Angeles?
The root of the problem is familiar to human rights activists in less than democratic countries. While legal regulation of non-profits and charities in democracies is designed to foster a vibrant, responsible civil society, more repressive governments have learned that cumbersome regulations of NGOs can be a quiet, technocratic, and largely invisible means of keeping human rights and other opposition groups weak. This is exactly what Egypt has done.
EFRR and AMERA promise that services for refugees will not be interrupted. The idea is for AMERA to become a project of EFRR. But there are no guarantees, as AMERA’s own history illustrates. After leaving university confines in 2001, the nascent refugee legal aid program spent three years as a project of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. AMERA emerged when this marriage broke up in 2004.
Nevertheless, collaborations much like this one have proven successful in several other countries where refugee legal aid has taken root. The Refugee Legal Aid Project in Istanbul, one of the strongest such organizations anywhere, is a project of Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a larger human rights organization. As much as anything else, AMERA is a story of resiliency.
One thing I can say from experience: Every hour that organizational leaders are forced to spend on internal management problems is time taken away from building better programs for refugees. But despite a great deal of internal turmoil over the years, AMERA has always found a way to return to its mission. And that alone is reason to be optimistic.
Among the remaining areas of dispute about due process standards in UNHCR refugee status determination, disclosure of evidence remains the most difficult. UNHCR policy still maintains that UN offices should withhold from asylum-seekers the central evidence in their own refugee cases: their interview notes.
So I hope someone at UNHCR is paying attention to the settlement just reached in federal court between immigration lawyers in San Francisco and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. Under its terms, the U.S. Government must provide asylum seekers who ask with the “notes taken by asylum officers to document their interviews with asylum applicants.”
This is awkward for UNHCR. On the one hand, the UN Refugee Agency advocates for governments to give asylum-seekers equal access to information and evidence. On the other hand, it sets a lesser standard for its own field offices.
To be clear, the American asylum interviews are not a perfect analogy to UNHCR RSD, because they grant asylum by discretion, with rights above and beyond what is required by international law. In the U.S., refugee protection under international law is adjudicated in Immigration Courts, where applicants have long had access to hearing transcripts and can see all of the evidence submitted by the government to oppose their claims. A U.S. appeals court has found that immigrants in deportation proceedings should normally have access to the entire “A-File” that the government holds on non-citizens (though the Department of Homeland Security continues to resist enforcement of this ruling.)
But the U.S. Asylum Office does bear some significant similarities to UNHCR RSD in that it uses a non-adversarial interview approach, in which the interviewer takes notes of what is said. This is exactly what happens in UNHCR RSD interviews. If U.S. asylum officers can share their notes, why can’t UNHCR staff?
This is more evidence that UNHCR’s evidence withholding policies could not exist without UN immunity. We can’t easily take them to court like the folks in San Francisco, and so we must rely on efforts at persuasion with precious little leverage. But that shouldn’t stop UNHCR officials developing policies that they could actually defend in an independent tribunal. UNHCR need not hide behind its immunity. UNHCR could be taking the lead, or rather, leading by example. Instead, we are begging UNHCR just to catch up.
While international attention tends to focus on the countries where the greatest number of refugees are found, some individuals find their way to far off places through a mixture of individual initiative, happenstance, airline routing and visa rules. Asylum Access’ Anna Chen has a great post about Ali, a Palestinian refugee who fled the Syrian civil war all the way to Thailand.
When war broke out between the rebels and the military, Palestinians were forced to flee alongside Syrians. But unlike their Syrian neighbors, travel was difficult because most Palestinian refugees did not have a passport but a travel document that Ali tells us is recognized by few governments. With most embassies closed, Ali says Malaysia and Thailand were among the few that remained open who were able to provide visas.
Because of stories like this, cities like Bangkok often host a smattering of refugees from as far away as West Africa. They are highly visible and yet easily forgotten because they are exceptional. If you walk into a meeting with humanitarian officials of a donor government and say you want to talk about refugees in Thailand, the officials will assume you mean Burmese who live in camps in the north.
This can work to the advantage of a few refugees, if - and this is a big if – the exceptional urban refugees from far away get an inside track to resettlement while the larger group is warehoused. But it is usually a problem. With smaller numbers, refugees have fewer social connections of their own from which to find support. They are easily forgotten at planning sessions.
Most glaringly, refugees who don’t fit the high profile patters are typically less attractive to donors, and get treated differently than their immediate neighbors. The Atlantic has a great article about this, focusing on Sudanese in Jordan whose plight gets far less attention – and less assistance – than the influx of Syrians.
Many Sudanese in Jordan wait three months just to get their first appointment with UNHCR. As asylum seekers, they can then wait for years before their refugee status is determined, with no means to work and no aid in the meantime. … Syrians, meanwhile, speed through or skip through this process, receiving refugee status and help immediately because they have been declared prima facie refugees—members of a mass influx from generalized violence for which UNHCR doesn’t need or have the capacity to conduct individual evaluations.
The authors ask: “What makes an asylum seeker from Syria needier than one from Sudan?” It’s a trick question, of course.
Different situations call for different responses, but there’s more to it than that. Donations, and sometimes resettlement programs, follow crises in the news because governments love to announce that they are addressing a high profile catastrophe. But there is less political gain in helping refugees whose plights are less interesting to the media. Given that Syrian refugees are suffering considerably, imagine the plight of those who are not the current refugees of the month.
Here’s a frightening report about a Rwandan refugee, Joel Mutabazi, who was recognized as a refugee by UNHCR and later kidnapped from Kampala and taken back to Rwanda.
Rwandan authorities accuse him of having linked to “genocidal forces,” but UNHCR publicly disputes the allegations. UNHCR’s representative in Uganda was quoted in The Times of London: “Rwandan refugees are one of the highest risk groups among refugee communities in Africa.”
The incident highlights how limited UNHCR’s protection tools often are for refugees who face the most immediate threats to their physical safety. While UNHCR can recognize that someone is in danger, it usually must rely on host governments to provide physical security for refugees. The case also is likely to add continuing fuel about whether Rwandan refugees should be sent home in any circumstances, a debate I have written about previously.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee has published a cutting edge guide to credibility assessment in refugee cases, called Credibility Assessment in Asylum Procedures. I’m a co-author, so I know this may sound self-serving, but this is now probably the state of the art in capturing best practices in one of the hardest and high stakes challenges in RSD. Doubts about credibility probably lead to more rejections of refugee claims than any other issue, but often have a very thin basis. And if the adjudicator doubts someone who is actually telling the truth, a person in danger of persecution will be put in harms way.
UNHCR consulted extensively on the training manual, which follow close on the heals of UNHCR’s report about credibility assessment in Europe, which is one of the best reports on the subject to date. (And I didn’t co-author that report, so this compliment is not self-serving).
Guglielmo Verdirame and Jason Pobjoy have published a thoughtful response to my essay on UNHCR’s urban refugee policy. Please check it out here. I will be posting a brief reply in the comments section.
Let me say separately that with these and other comments and essays already posted, the new Urban-Refugees.org blog has managed to facilitate one of the most lively and constructive online debates on refugee policy that I can recall.