UN Displacement Figures for Darfur: Assessment, Confused Guesses, or Dissimulation?

By Eric Reeves

December 20, 2015 (SSNA) — I have written on a number of occasions about the implausible, self-contradictory, and deliberately distorting nature of UN figures for displaced persons in Darfur (see Appendix B). The problems seems endemic at this point, and reporting is neither consistent with itself nor with the evidence that comes from the field by way of Radio Dabanga, Sudan Tribune, and other sources. This reflects either slovenly research practices or a continuing desire to placate the Khartoum regime, which has pressured UN agencies for years to provide lower figures for displaced persons, who are in the main living in camps nominally served by the UN and International Nongovernmental Humanitarian Organizations (INGOs).

Among other things, the careless, inaccurate, and tendentious use of data for displaced persons works to diminish the reality and significance of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and ultimately has effects on international perceptions of humanitarian need. Moreover, given Khartoum’s desire to close the camps and remove the rationale for an international humanitarian presence, poor representation of data serves the regime’s continuously genocidal ambitions. Since 2007, the year in which the UN/African Union Mission for Darfur (UNAMID) was approved by the UN Security Council, roughly 2.5 million people have been newly displaced (see Appendix A for a year-by-year breakdown of displacement). The African Union leadership of UNAMID has been consistently terrible, and two of the former heads of UNAMID—Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria and Rodolphe Adada of Congo—have offered despicably upbeat assessments bearing no relation to reality on the ground and serving only as self-puffery to further their UN careers.

Some examples

Most recently, the figure for displacement in 2015 has been reported in two very different ways: the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports in its Humanitarian Bulletin Sudan Issue 48 | 23 – 29 November 2015 that in 2015 the number of Darfuris “newly displaced” was “100,000.” But in its earlier figure for displacement, OCHA reported 223,000 newly displaced in 2015 (Sudan: Humanitarian Bulletin Issue 44 | 26 October – 1 November 2015).

Who is compiling the data? and guided by what historical sense of what OCHA itself has said? A disparity of this magnitude needs explanation, front and center. In its most recent report on Sudan (December 13, 2015), OCHA again uses the figure of “100,000 newly displaced.” This figure is highly implausible for any number of reasons, not least because the figures for the preceding two years were massively higher, and violence has only increased. UN News Centre (December 4, 2014) reported that:

According to UN estimates, the number of people displaced by conflict has increased to more than 430,000 since the beginning of the year [2014], with close to 300,000 remaining in displacement in addition to the more than two million long-term internally displaced persons.

In 2013 the figure was over 460,000 newly displaced persons.

But there is another egregious error in the December 4, 2014 UN dispatch, which reported the total of “long term internally displaced persons” to be “more than 2 million.” OCHA’s figure at the time was 2.4 million, soon to be raised to 2.5 million. This is hardly captured by the phrase “more than 2 million.”

Moreover, this figure is surely an underestimate: OCHA bases its figure on displaced populations that can be accessed. Those who can’t be reached are rarely estimated and certainly don’t figure in totals for internal displacement. Those who are displaced but can’t be reached or can’t reach an IDP camp, or those who have chosen to move to other villages or locations, are simply not included. We have no idea what this figure might be, but statements from the UN, and especially dispatches from Radio Dabanga, about large numbers of displaced in East Jebel Marra and the Jebel Marra massif itself suggest a figure in the hundred of thousands.

Violence over the past three years alone has displaced more than 1 million people, according to the UN’s own figures, and yet the UN figure for total displaced has not kept pace with its own data. In mid-October, 2013 UN OCHA was using an untenably, indeed preposterously low figure of 1.4 million. This is partly the legacy of Georg Charpentier, who during his tenure as UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Sudan (2009 – 2011) led an effort to lower the number of IDPs, basing his “research” in one case on a non-existent report (see Appendix B). Only in October 2013 did UN OCHA announce that “figures for IDPs in Darfur are currently being reviewed.” The “review” continued until mid-April 2004. When a new figure was finally promulgated in May 2014 it was 2.3 million—an increase of roughly 65 percent. This in itself is disturbing, for it was presented as “2 million displaced” plus the 300,000 people who had been newly displaced by early spring 2014.

But this figure of “2 million” is clearly untenable in light of figures the UN had accumulated for displacement in previous years. For context, let’s recall that the last Darfur Humanitarian Profile (No. 34 | January 1, 2009) reported that 2.7 million Darfuris had been internally displaced. In the years preceding and following, the extant data—from the UN, Canadian "Peace Operations Monitor,” Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, and other sources—indicated the following totals for newly displaced persons in Darfur (details of the sources for these figures are in Appendix A).

2007:             300,000 civilians newly displaced

2008:             317,000 civilians newly displaced

2009:             250,000 civilians newly displaced

2010:             300,000 civilians newly displaced

2011:             200,000 civilians newly displaced

2012:             150,000 civilians newly displaced

2013:             480,000 civilians newly displaced

2014:             430,000 civilians newly displaced

2015:             233,000 (as of September 2015) civilians newly displaced

[Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad: 380,000—a figure much overlooked; see http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e45c226.html ]

The very precision of the figure for newly displaced persons in 2015 should serve as a reminder that UN figures are not inclusive, but represent only those who have been assessed, which excludes what are likely hundreds of thousands of people from previous years who have not made it to an IDP camp, are living in the camps unregistered, or are living elsewhere in Darfur. But the total of these figures is simply staggering: approximately 2.7 million. In a grim irony, this is the figure used by the UN OCHA in its last Darfur Humanitarian Profile—again, No. 34 | January 1, 2009.

How can these figures possibly be made to comport with current UN figures? In its Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 26 (January 1, 2007), OCHA had carefully plotted on a graph the figures that led to the conclusion that the number of IDPs was at this time already over 2 million. The total for the number displaced prior to January 1, 2007 and those displaced subsequently is 4.7 million.

What are we to make of this extraordinary figure, one that bears no relationship at all to the figure of 1.4 million that Charpentier was able to engineer with the help of UNAMID leadership?

There are several answers:

[1] A great many of these people have died because of atrocious conditions in a number of camps and the violence that stalks those who are trapped in the camps without meaningful protection. Those attempting to farm their lands, if nearby, risk murder and rape (see “Changing the Demography”: Violent Expropriation and Destruction of Farmlands in Darfur, November 2014 – November 2015”). But the UN has not released any mortality assessment or data since a crude estimate of 300,000 offered in April 2008—more than seven and a half years ago.

In August 2010, using all extant data, I offered a detailed mortality assessment, concluding that some 500,000 people had died from violence and violence-related dehydration, malnutrition, and ultimately disease. There has been no subsequent analysis that I am aware of, nor have any systematic mortality data been released by the UN. As a consequence, virtually all news reporting continues to use the crude estimate made by Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes in April 2008—this despite our clear knowledge of massive subsequent mortality from violence and its consequences.

[2] Many of these people—but not nearly as many as the UN and the African Union would have us believe—have returned to their homes and lands. In turn, however, many of these people have been again displaced, or killed, because of their daring to return. There is simply no large-scale pattern of returns in evidence; on the contrary, displacement continues apace as the vast, genocidal violence in East Jebel Marra, the Jebel Marra massif, and other locations in Darfur continues unchecked (again, see “Changing the Demography”: Violent Expropriation and Destruction of Farmlands in Darfur, November 2014 – November 2015”).

[3] The pattern of repeated displacement of the same persons inflates the total figure for the number of displaced. Some people have been displaced two, three, four, or more times. But even the broadest estimate of such redundancy cannot possibly account for the figure of 4.7 million people—for which we have data or a reasonable basis for estimating.

Confronting the Data

The UN seems unable to be consistent with itself in promulgating figures, and seems oblivious to the massive disparity between its figure for displacement and the figures emerging from the evidence and data of the past twelve years. We presently have no alternative to the UN’s figures on displacement of Darfuris, but clearly need one.

Appendix A: Sources for displacement figures, 2007 – 2015

2007:             300,000 civilians newly displaced: OCHA estimated that more than 300,000 Darfuris were newly displaced (UN OCHA, Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 30: conditions as of January 1, 2008; http://reliefweb.int/report/sudan/sudan-darfur-humanitarian-profile-no-30-situation-01-jan-2008/

2008:             317,000 civilians newly displaced: OCHA estimated that 317,000 Darfuris were newly displaced; (UN OCHA, Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 34: conditions as of January 1, 2009; http://reliefweb.int/report/sudan/sudan-darfur-humanitarian-profile-no-34-situation-01-jan-2009  

2009:             250,000 civilians newly displaced: In this year of humanitarian expulsions, OCHA promulgated no figure of its own, indeed ended publication of its data-rich "Darfur Humanitarian Profiles."  But data were still being collected: the Canadian "Peace Operations Monitor" found evidence suggesting that "over 214,000 people were newly displaced [in Darfur] between January and June [2009] alone" (http://pom.peacebuild.ca/SudanRelief.shtml). 250,000 for the entire year seems a conservative estimate based on this research.

2010:             300,000 civilians newly displaced: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre collected data suggesting that approximately 270,000 people were newly displaced in Darfur (http://tinyurl.com/n6fzjx).   This figure was last updated on January 4, 2011, and thus is highly unlikely to have taken full account of the large-scale displacement of December 2010. The OCHA Sudan Bulletin (January 7 – 13, 2011) reported that the "overall number of people displaced during the December 2010 fighting in the area of Khor Abeche stands at 43,000." 300,000 newly displaced for the year again seems a conservative estimate;

2011:             200,000 civilians newly displaced: There is no aggregation of data, and what data there are cannot be considered adequate to measure the full scale of displacement; but various reports suggest that the scale of displacement certainly did not diminish dramatically, and may well have increased significantly in eastern regions of Darfur following the defection of Minni Minawi and his Sudan Liberation Army (SLA/MM) fighters from the Khartoum regime in late 2010:

UN IRIN (Nairobi) reports, March 16, 2011:

Tens of thousands of people continue to flee their homes in Sudan’s western region of Darfur for the safety of internally displaced people’s camps after recent fighting between government forces and armed militias.  According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an estimated 66,000 IDPs have arrived in camps in North and South Darfur since JanuaryAt least 53,000 are in and around North Darfur State’s Zam Zam IDP Camp.

[These OCHA figures almost certainly do not include the many Zaghawa displaced in eastern Darfur; see "Forgotten Darfur: Old Tactics and New Players,” Small Arms Survey, 2012]

200,000 is a rough extrapolation from these data, but still a conservative one.

2012:             150,000 civilians newly displaced: Again, there is no detailed aggregation of data that I am aware of that looks with any specificity at violence that displaced or killed civilians in 2012. With respect to displacement, the UN appears content with a figure of 90,000 – 100,000 newly displaced civilians for the year 2012. Reports from the ground strongly suggest a higher figure, especially in violence-wracked areas to which the UN has little or no access.  There is a clear escalation of violence throughout 2012, and displacement in Darfur has always correlated very closely with violence.

NB: at the end of 2012, the UN had not collected or promulgated systematic data on displacement in Darfur for over four years; this is simply disgraceful.

2013:             480,000 civilians newly displaced: in November 2013, the UN estimates the 460,000 had already been displaced by the end of October and their numbers continued to grow throughout the year. Notably, in January 2014, Hervé Ladsous will speak of “an estimated 400,000 people” who have been newly displaced in 2013. This tendentious understatement is characteristic of Ladsous and the UN generally in speaking about displacement, especially given the civilian protection mandate of UNAMID.

2014:             The UN estimates that 430,000 civilians were newly displaced; UN New Center, December 4, 2015

2015:             233,000 (as of October 2015) civilians newly displaced, according to UN OCHA: “Since January 2015, 233,000 people have been displaced from their homes by conflict in Darfur.” Sudan: Humanitarian Snapshot as of 30 November 2015

Appendix B: Mendacity on the part of UNAMID leaders Rodolphe Adada and Ibrahim Gambari, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Georg Charpentier, and other international actors: a bibliography

• "Has War ‘Ended’ in Darfur?" Sudan Tribune | September 3, 2009
• "UN Collaboration in the Silencing of Darfur," Dissent Magazine, September 5, 2010 
• “Who Speaks for the UN on Darfur”: The Role of Nigeria’s Ibrahim Gambari,” Dissent Magazine | August 25, 2010
• "How many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are there in Darfur?" Dissent Magazine | April 28, 2011
• "The UN’s Man in Darfur: The Expedient Mendacity of Ibrahim Gambari," September 19, 2011
• “Darfur in the Still Deepening Shadow of Lies,” May 25, 2012
• “Accommodating Genocide: The International Response to Khartoum’s ‘New Strategy for Darfur,’” Dissent Magazine | October 8, 2010
• “Darfur: The Disappearing Genocide,” The New Republic | August 20, 2010
• "The UN Panel of Experts on Darfur Disappears," Dissent Magazine, September 27, 2011
• "Darfur Humanitarian Overview: The Consequences of International Silence," January 23 | 2011
• “Passive in the Face of Sudan’s Atrocities,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2012
• “A Key Report on Darfur by UN Panel of Experts Consigned to Oblivion,” Sudan Tribune, April 27, 2013

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for the past seventeen years. He is author of Compromising with Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012

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