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Casualties, Refugees, Citizens: Count Again

April 25, 2012

Social sciences and policies are based on a fundamental action: counting. Be that refugees list, casualties toll or demographic census counting is the first step to gauge the scale of any phenomena. The action of counting how many refugees have been displaced by a natural disaster or how many casualties have been caused by a war is widely perceived as something merely technical and neutral. Yet, if one looks at the who is doing the counting and what consequences the counting can have one can discover that both the simplicity and neutrality of counting is misplaced.

Take the case of the casualties list in Syria. The data was initially reported by the UN OHCHR which then decide to stop emitting such statement. Inability to verify the sources of such data, this was the official reason. One of these sources is the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which at the moment is the only source extensively quoted by the media. The fact that, despite OHCHR’s declared inability to check the number, the casualty list is systematically updated and reproduced in the media gives room for skepticism. More importantly, the list does not provide the breakdown between civilians, fighters of the opposition or the regime’s army. Yet, the devil is in the details and the breakdown is crucial to establish to what extent the response of the government was necessary and or proportional to the other party violence. Both these principles will determine the government’s responsibility when (and if) judged against international law. A list which conflates all the victims leaves however little room to evaluate such nuances which play a key role in international law. The way that the Syrian Observatory is carrying out the counting and the way the casualty list is compiled are therefore both gravid of political consequences.

Another case in question is the number of refugees who are counted to be arriving in Jordan. As Nicholas Seeley on the FP illustrates,  in a remake of the Iraqi war time, the Jordanian government is indirectly presenting numbers of Syrian refugees which grossly overestimates their presence. As in 2007 the government presented a number of Iraqi refugees which was inflated by a number of five, at the beginning of March was stating that 78,00 Syrian were in Jordan. Yet, this number conflates Syrians who have long resided in Jordan for work and the refugees in need of support. To make the counting more problematic, people living close to the Jordan-Syria border live their lives across the borders: they might work in Jordan but return to Syria for healthcare or holiday. Therefore, they do not fit the neat categorizations of Jordan or Syrian residents. This conflated and inflated number of refugees goes hand in hand with a call for humanitarian support which Jordan was successful to get in 2007 as it is likely to do it now. The money is indeed necessary for some of the refugees, yet a conflated list can hamper efforts to reach those most in need.

The list of examples can be very long and extends even to the fact itself of counting how many people a country has. In Lebanon for example the social peace is premised on not knowing how many people from each community reside currently in the country: the goal is to avoid to tip the balance of power in favor one faction or the other. Whatever way one looks at it, counting is often assumed to be a technical, simple and neutral exercise. Yet, when one scratches the surface and looks at who and how the counting is done the counting exercise reveals its political aspect in both the way it is performed  and the effect it can have. The postulate of the simplicity and neutrality of counting justifies and leads to an uncritical acceptance of any casualties or refugees lists: to underline the complexity and politics of counting helps to keep in mind that sometimes one should reach out for the calculator and count again.

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