Sometimes a number stays stuck in my head for weeks. When Thea Hillhurst was awarded the Spinoza Prize in June for her research in humanitarian aid, the headline was de Volkskrant: “Conflict rarely lasts for a short time: refugees stay in refugee camps for an average of 17 years.”
Seventeen years. Seventeen. I thought about it when I heard about the Dutch emergency shelter where refugees have to go to a different place every two weeks. The number that sang in my head during my son’s eighth musical group: Seventeen years, that was the whole life of the children standing there, plus five more. I thought about those 17 years when the newspaper reported this week that nearly seven million people have fled Ukraine and that more than seven million more are internally displaced.
I decided to look further into those seventeen years, when I explained during a lecture that with averages, it is always good to look at the distribution of the whole group. What does this mean for seventeen years? Are most people about average? For every one-year fugitive, is there one for whom it would take 33 years? Or do most people in refugee camps spend a much shorter period of time and are there peak periods that pull the average?
This seventeen-year average comes from a United Nations report from 2004. In a 2019 blog, Xavier Devictor warns of world bank You have to be careful with these types of averages. Those seventeen years appear, as is often the case, very precisely defined. It turns out that it is not about how long the refugees live in the camp, because many refugees live outside of these camps. Only cases lasting more than five years were included in this average.
Moreover, the number does not come from individual refugees, but from situations, in other words from conflicts that lead to large refugee flows. He mentions Somali refugees in Kenya as an example. This large influx of refugees began in 1993, and at the time of writing the article in 2019 there were 252,200 refugees. But you cannot conclude that these 252,200 people have all been expelled from their countries for 26 years.
Next, Devictor explains how at the end of 2018, he and his colleague Quy-Toan Do made new estimates of the average time during which refugees were expelled. And it turns out that there are significant differences: for Afghan refugees, the period was between 35 and 40 years at the time. The Sudanese refugees were about 17 years old, but there were also a lot of new refugees from Syria. In all, half of all refugees have been displaced for less than five years, with the average being just over ten years. Incidentally, Devictor stresses that the decrease in this average is completely counterintuitive and not good news: it usually means the arrival of a large influx of new refugees.
As an expert, Thea Hillhurst knows all this without a doubt. But I can understand why you mentioned those seventeen years, because they remain in your head more than the most complex numbers with all the nuances. The main message is the same: “Conflict is seldom short-lived.”
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