Counting and Miscounting Palestinian Refugees – Part I

Counting and Miscounting Palestinian Refugees – Part I


Howard Adelman

Counting is one of the most basic things we learn to do. No sooner does a child learn to recognize mom and dad and to understand he or she has only one of each, than that child learns to count siblings and then cousins. ‘Well the new baby means you now have two brothers.’ ‘Three!‘ ‘No, not three brothers. Anna is your sister. You have two brothers and one sister.’ ‘No, momma has four children, not three. You have to count yourself. I have three boys and one girl.’ And so it continues.

As we grow, we learn to aggregate and differentiate. And we also learn our first lessons in lying and cheating. ‘I told you that you could have three M&Ms, not five.’ ‘But two were broken. They don’t count.’ And when we are mature, we learn to become sloppy in our counting and even deliberately mislead for entertainment or supposedly humanitarian and political purposes. In 1982, just after the Israelis invaded Lebanon, OXFAM Britain published full page ads that claimed 600,000 had been made homeless in southern Lebanon by the Israeli invasion. Israel responded and issued a press release insisting that only 27,000 had been made homeless. The Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) at York University, then called the Refugee Studies Project, earned its initial international reputation in part by proving its thesis that, even in the midst of conflict, reasonably accurate counts of refugees can be carried out. Based on this and other research, CRS was dubbed a Centre of Excellence and received research funding of $5,600,000 over five years.

The accurate number made homeless by the invasion in South Lebanon was 40,000. That figure was subsequently used by all sides in the conflict. The credibility was earned in the following ways:

·         Demonstrating that the 600,000 figure originated in an ICRC report that 600,000 had been affected, not made homeless, by the invasion

·         That the research on the ground by a highly reputable Israeli academic erred by 10,000 as a result of one unintended addition error and by 3,000 because several pockets of refugees had been missed

·         That the twelve counts on the ground carried out by Palestinian elementary teachers, municipal authorities, the Society for Engineers in Lebanon, and nine other institutions in Lebanon, including the International Red Cross, though varied somewhat, could all be reconciled if the same definition of a refugee was used (not Palestinian homes in camps but Palestinian homes occupied by ethnic Palestinians – many homes had been rented out to itinerant workers in Lebanon from South Asia primarily –that were destroyed by the invasion), the same territory covered and corrections plus allowances taken into account for errors easily made when counting in such difficult circumstances

·         By showing that the International Committee of the Red Cross count, which ICRC only shamefacedly owned up to because the method of counting lacked any rigour, was simply based on its years of experience using only a simple rule of thumb rather than actual counting; ironically, that estimate turned out to be the most accurate – simply count the number of kitchen kits distributed and multiply by three.

One might think that, unlike Lebanon where refugees were simply scattered among the local population, counts of refugees in camps would be easy. The people are all supposedly contained in a given area. When, as part of one study, the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University went to verify the numbers of Somali and a few other types of refugees in Dadaab Camp in Northern Kenya, well before the camp numbers were enormously increased by the most recent continuing conflicts in Southern Somalia, on census day conducted by the UNHCR, over 100 buses and many other vehicles, mostly from Nairobi, had arrived to allow refugees to return so they could be included in the count and ensure their families had adequate rations, which then consisted of only 1,600 calories a day per adult. We could find no accurate method to differentiate between local Northern Kenyan ethnic Somali citizens who had joined the camp population to get cards entitling them to rations, but estimates were arrived at through small samples of very defined areas. From reviews of such counts, we began to adopt a rule of thumb for camps administered and controlled by UNHCR. Discount published census figures by 10% to gain a more accurate estimate of the number of actual refugees living in a camp.

Sometimes miscounting can have horrible consequences. We learned that when the actual control of camps was in the hands of militants, and even worse, defeated soldiers, then the numbers were inflated far more because the militants used ration cards to acquire foodstuffs and sell them on the black market. The monies were used to purchase arms as well as to pay themselves. Then we used as a guide a 25% inflation figure.

For an example of the abuse of refugee figures for both humanitarian and political purposes, the Hutus who fled to Eastern Congo then called Zaire provide an excellent example. Ignore for a moment the large numbers of Rwandan refugees that fled to Tanzania (500,000) and Burundi (200,000). In the Eastern Congo to which the defeated army in Rwanda had fled in the summer of 1994 along with hundreds of thousands of additional Hutu refugees following the genocide of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda, the reported number of refugees in camps in the Eastern Congo (Zaire) mostly controlled by the ex-FAR (Forces Armée Rwandaises) as well as the interahamwe and impuzamugambi militias, was said to be 1,400,000 out of a total Hutu refugee population of 2.1 million. The definition of refugees excluded soldiers and militants estimated at 50,000. If Hutu civilians who participated in the killing are counted among the genocidaires as well as members of ex-FAR families who accompanied the soldiers into exile, then these along with the soldiers and militia members totaled about 200,000.

Were the over 100,000 Hutu civilians who had participated in the massive slaughter of innocents to be counted as civilians or as militants? What about the members of the families of the soldiers? After all, they were civilians so they should definitely be counted as refugees.

When the camps were broken up by an invasion of Zaire in 1996 by Kagame’s forces, an estimated 800,000 Hutu refugees returned from Zaire to Rwanda. 600,000 Hutu were reported as having fled deeper into Zaire. These included members of the ex-FAR (Forces Armée Rwandaises), their families, the interahamwe and impuzamugambi and other civilians who participated in the killing. The number 600,000 was obtained by subtracting the 800,000 who returned from the estimated number of 1,400,000 in the Zaire camps. But if those numbers were inflated by at least 25% given the military control over the camps, then the figure of the number that fled was inflated by 350,000. Though up to 50,000 of those who fled were estimated to have been killed by Rwandan armed forces under Kagame, including a large number who were civilians, the charge that a second genocide had been committed because the 350,000 phantom refugees were “missing” and presumed dead. So a figure began to be distributed that Kagame’s forces had killed 400,000 to 600,000 in a second genocide rather than the estimated up to 50,000 who had died.

The actual numbers in Zaire were as follows:

Estimated number of refugees (not soldiers or militia members) in camps 1,400,000

Less inflation factors of 25% (-350,000)                                                        1,050,000

Numbers who Hutu refugees who returned to Rwanda from Zaire                 800,000

Numbers of civilians, including civilian genocidaires   100,000

plus family members of militants                        100,000

others                                                                       50,000

Total of Civilians who fled deeper into the Congo                                         250,000

Actual Total Number of Hutu Refugees in Zaire                                     1,050,000

This figure of 600,000 refugees who fled deeper into Zaire included 350,000 phantom refugees. The large number was used to accuse the Rwandan government of committing another genocide of 400,000 to 600,000 Hutu refugees. Thus are inflated imaginary figures used to conduct propaganda wars.

What has this to do with counting Palestinian refugees?

In the next two days, the answer.


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