We are often asked questions about how big a particular camp is, or how many people are in a camp. In reality this is not always a straight forward question to answer. The numbers fluctuate considerably from week to week and the headline figures are not always up to date.
We have also come to notice that there is sometimes a degree of deliberate ‘flexibility’ with the numbers. We saw this very clearly in Calais where the different ‘totals’ for the camp would be wildly different. It was not unheard of for a population figure cited by the police and a figure cited by refugee charities to differ by several thousand. As we went into September 2016 official figures were putting the camp population at 6901, whilst unofficial figures were putting the population at more than 10,108.
The assumption when these types of inconsistent figures emerge is that the ‘real’ figure would be somewhere in the middle. Whatever the reasons for the differences in numbers it was a fairly consistent pattern in France that official figures would always be significantly lower than unofficial figures.
One of the numbers which seemed particularly susceptible to wildly different variants was the number of ‘unaccompanied minors’. We have seen totals quoted which seemed to us to be positively fantastic, when they related to camps or areas where we knew significant numbers of children.
Providing education to school age children, we would get to know a significant number of the children in a camp. The children coming to school would tell us about other children who were not coming. They would tell us about any unaccompanied minors that they were aware of. Their sense was often very accurate and when we were able to cross reference what they were telling us with what passed for official records, we would often find considerable overlap.
Yet, when crises occurred and the numbers of ‘unaccompanied minors’ would be cited in the public domain, the numbers cited seemed to suddenly rocket. On one occasion we saw a figure claimed as a total for the number of ‘unaccompanied minors,’ which was actually greater than what we understood to be the total number of all children in the camp at that time.
We always appreciated that in any given situation there could well have been ‘unaccompanied minors’ who were not known to us, and may have only been known to a few others. That was entirely possible. But when the figures being cited publicly are suddenly greater than what we were aware of by factors of 10 or more, we were absolutely astonished.
When astonishing numbers have been put to us, we have asked whether we could see the children for ourselves. This has never seemed to be possible. We still have no idea where some of the figures which we have seen cited have come from.
A recent article about the situation in Greece notes similar problems with the numbers in the Greek camps. (Where did the money go? How Greece fumbled the refugee crisis). An example is noted of a camp where the official population total was cited one day as 604, when an independent count that day recorded only 135 people in the camp. What is particularly interesting about this example is that it seems to show a tendency which is diametrically opposite to what was happening in France. In France the official figures were always ‘lower,’ in Greece it is the official figure which is the higher figure.
There are legitimate reasons for some differences in figures, as we know that activities happen within camps to manipulate the figures. We ourselves have seen residents being woken up very early in order to be moved out of the camp before an official count happens, so that a lower figure can be counted by officials. This was a significant issue in Dunkirk where there was a rule that if the population level crossed the 1500 mark, then the legal responsibility for the camp transferred from local authorities to regional authorities.
But we have also heard fantastical claims for numbers which bear no resemblance to the situation as we have seen or experienced it on the ground. We have heard authorities those kinds of numbers a Aid organisation propaganda put on for the purposes of raising more money for themselves. This seems to us to be unfair. Without being able to enter into the minds and motives of those putting out ‘high’ figures, it is potentially unfair to make accusations and criticisms.
What we have come to realise, however, is that Refugee camps are unique environments where nothing is as it seems. The claims and counter claims about the camps and their residents must all be taken with considerable care and whatever their provenance, they need cross referencing and confirming properly.