Forced migration and forced displacement
In studying forced or involuntary migration or displacement, a distinction is often made between conflict-induced and disaster-induced migration. Displacement induced by conflict is typically referred to man-made, whereas natural causes typically underlay migrations created by disasters. [While these dichotomies are conceptually useful, the lines between them may be blurred in practice. Thus, conflict may arise due to disputes over natural resources, whereas human activity may trigger natural disasters such landslides.]
Countries faced with forced displacement, whether induced by human intervention or nature, collect data on displaced populations. Such data are typically collected through a combination of population censuses, household surveys, border counts, administrative records and beneficiary registers.
At the international level, data on forced migration are collected and/or compiled by various intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
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Key terms that are used in the context of forced migration include:
- According to IOM, forced migration is “a migratory movement in which an element of coercion exists, including threats to life and livelihood, whether arising from natural or man-made causes (e.g. movements of refugees and internally displaced persons as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects)” (IOM Glossary on Migration).
- According to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol refugees are persons who flee their country due to ‘well-founded fear’ of persecution due to reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and who are outside of their country of nationality or permanent residence and due to this fear are unable or unwilling to return to it. UNHCR includes “individuals recognized under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, those recognized in accordance with the UNHCR Statute, individuals granted complementary forms of protection, and those enjoying temporary protection. The refugee population also includes people in refugee-like situations.” (UNHCR, 2017).
- Persons in a refugee-like situation includes “groups of persons who are outside their country or territory of origin and who face protection risks similar to those of refugees, but for whom refugee status has, for practical or other reasons, not been ascertained” (UNHCR, 2013).
- According to UNHCR asylum-seekers are “individuals who have sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined” (2017, 56).
- Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are defined as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2.).
- Mixed flows are “complex migratory population movements that include refugees, asylum-seekers, economic migrants and other migrants, as opposed to migratory population movements that consist entirely of one category of migrants” (IOM Glossary on Migration).
- Disaster-induced migration is the displacement of people as a result of “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses or impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009).
- Resettlement, according to IOM, is the “relocation and integration of people (refugees, internally displaced persons, etc.) into another geographical area and environment, usually in a third country. In the refugee context, the transfer of refugees from the country in which they have south refuge to another State that has agreed to admit them.” (IOM Glossary on Migration). Resettlement programmes are carried out by both IOM and UNHCR.
 Other organizations may refer to other terms, such as forced displacement.
According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people both within countries and across borders has grown to 65.6 million in 2016, from 33.9 million in 1997 (UNHCR, 2017). Of this figure, 40.3 million individuals were internally displaced people (IDPs) (IDMC, 2017), making up 61 per cent of the total of forcibly displaced population in 2016. The remaining 39 per cent consists of 22.5 million refugees and 2.8 million asylum-seekers. Such figures show it is important to keep in mind that forcibly displaced persons not only consist of refugees and asylum seekers who seek protection in other countries, but also, and indeed mainly, of individuals who have been displaced within the borders of their own countries. The drastic increase of forced displacement that occurred between 1997 and 2016 was concentrated between 2012 and 2015 (35.8 million to 65.3 million), mainly due to the Syrian conflict, other conflicts in the region as well as in sub-Saharan Africa (UNHCR, 2017).
Of the 65.6 million forcibly displaced, 10.3 million people were newly displaced in 2016, of which 6.9 million individuals were displaced within the borders of their own countries (UNHCR, 2017).
More than half (55% in 2016) of the world’s refugees came from three countries: Syrian Arab Republic (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million) and South Sudan (1.4 million) (UNHCR, 2017).
Colombia has the largest population displaced due to conflict and violence, with 7.3 million registered at the end of 2016, followed by Syria (6.3 million), Sudan (3.3 million), Iraq (3 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.2 million) (IDMC, 2017).
China saw the largest amount of internal displacement due to disasters, with 7.4 million newly displaced in 2016, followed by the Philippines (5.9 million), India (2.4 million), Indonesia (1.2 million) and the United States (1.1 million) (IDMC, 2017).
In 2016, a total of 204,937 individuals travelled to 39 States under the International Organization for Migration (IOM) auspices for resettlement assistance; the top nationalities were Syrians, Congolese, DRC, Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis. Each year the gender breakdown remains the same, with 51% males and 49% females resettling to third countries (IOM, 2017).
In 2016, UNHCR submitted 163,203 persons for resettlement and recorded 126,291 departures for resettlement (UNHCR, 2017). In addition, UNHCR provided assistance to 500,300 of 552,200 voluntary repatriations in 2016 (ibid.).
UNHCR collects and provides data on the following types of forcibly displaced persons: refugees (including those in a refugee-like situation), IDPs, asylum seekers, returned refugees, returned IDPs, individuals under UNHCR’s statelessness mandate, and other groups or persons of concern to UNHCR. UNHCR’s Statistics Database provides data disaggregated by persons of concern, year, country of asylum, origin, gender, age, legal status, and resettlement. In addition to this, UNHCR annually produces six main publications that provide statistical data: Global Trends: Forced Displacement, Statistical Yearbooks, Mid-Year Trends, Global Appeal, and Global Report. UNHCR also began a statistics technical series, which “make[s] available in a timely fashion research, developments and studies on a variety of topics relevant to the statistical work of UNHCR”.
As the global reference point for data on IDPs, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) compiles and disseminates data specifically relating to internally displaced persons through their online Global Internal Displacement Database (GIDD). In addition, IDMC produces an annual Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID), covering international displacement worldwide due to conflict, violence and disasters.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presents data from UN DESA and UNHCR relating to migration, including forced migration, specifically regarding children disaggregated by country of asylum.
IOM collects forced migration data through the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). DTM is a system used to track and monitor displacement and population mobility due to natural disasters and conflict, and has been active in over 60 countries since 2004. Data are regularly captured, processed and disseminated to provide a better understanding of the movements and evolving needs of displaced populations and migrants, whether on site or en route, with over 14.5 million individuals tracked in 2016. In addition to this, IOM collects data on the number of migrants it assisted and resettled to States offering temporary protection or permanent resettlement. An overview of these data can be found in their annual Summary of IOM Statistics or in the IOM Snapshot.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) manages the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), an open platform for sharing data from a range of partners, which provides 4,915 sets over 244 locations.
Eurostat provides statistics on various international migration topics, including outcomes of forced migration to Europe. More specifically, the database provides data on the number of refugees, asylum applications, decisions on asylum applications and resettlement, and Dublin statistics within Europe.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides assistance and protection for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The UNRWA in Figures publication releases statistics on the number of Palestinian refugees and refugee camps. Today, over 5 million Palestine refugees have registered with UNRWA.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Organization of American States (OAS) together operate the Continuous Report System on International Migration in the Americas (SICREMI), which produces biannual reports of collected data from various sources in the region of Americas. The publication provides a short chapter on asylum seeking in the Americas, including data by country of asylum from 2001-2013.
Under the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration falls the U.S. Refugees Admissions Database. The database provides statistics to refugee arrivals and admissions in the United Sates, by region, state and nationality. In addition, the Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) produces Annual Flow Reports and Data Tables on refugee and asylum statistics, disaggregated by country of origin, age, sex and marital status.
The Government of Canada’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Department has an Open Government Portal through which statistical information on immigration and citizenship programmes can be found. Specifically, the portal provides monthly data on asylum claims, Syrian refugees and resettled refugees.
The Australian Government provides statistics on their humanitarian programme, which include quarterly asylum statistics and yearly asylum trends as well as yearly outcomes for their Offshore Humanitarian programme (refugee visas) and monthly Illegal Maritime Arrivals reports. Their Fact Sheet provides an overview of their refugee and humanitarian programme with figures for the most current year.
 The most recent report included data from Argentina, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, United States and Uruguay.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Given the high public interest, robust figures on forced displacement are essential. Existing data provide an indication of refugee and IDP figures globally, though based on estimates and varying methodologies data collection methods. Data discrepancies can occur due to disaggregation by country of origin or country of asylum only. Often the data are lacking information on sex, and age as well.
As one of the largest sources for data on forced displacement, UNHCR provides a unified approach to registering refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs through their Handbook for Registration, for their own staff as well as governmental and non-governmental partners who independently operate camps.
Many forced (and/or mixed) migration movements are monitored through population movement tracking systems, which provide rough estimates of such population flows. Organizations such as UNHCR, IOM, and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) have such tracking systems in place to monitor the movements of mixed migration flows and IDPs. But, such movement tracking systems are subject to caveats such as (but are not limited to): massive population flows that overwhelm capacity; limited access to certain routes and locations due to instability; unwillingness of individuals to provide information when there is no assistance being offered; and political pressures to suppress accurate reporting on IDP movements (Sarzin, 2017).
Data collection of forced or mixed migration movements where refugees move alongside irregular migrants or via irregular migration routes can be difficult and scarce, due to the clandestine nature of such migration and the various motives for migrating (GMG, 2017). The identification of individuals in need of protection also becomes challenging as many migrants travel together alongside migrants underway for work or other reasons (ibid.). As more resources are needed in order to collect such data, governments tend to only collect data on forced migration in developed countries (Sarzin, 2017).
In regard to collecting data relating to IDPs and other forcibly displaced persons, the problem of inconsistent definitions and methodologies arises. Such variation in definitions and methodologies across countries, organizations and movement tracking systems can produce contrasting totals, resulting in data that are not comparable (World Bank, 2017). In order to curb such inconsistencies, IDMC has been advocating for more data for the last 20 years, as well as the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), founded in 2014 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Both agencies are actively committed to advocating for data interoperability through the Grand Bargain.