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From the Archives: Troublesome Refugee Statistics & and the Case of Sudanese in Egypt

January 15, 2014

Tally_marks_counting_visitorsJeff 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.

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