Numbers are people – but are people numbers?

In 2015, over 1 million refugees arrived in Europe. In 2016, more than 5,000 refugees died in the Mediterranean. In 2017, 62,073 refugees and asylum seekers are stranded in Greece, now forgotten by most European countries. Numbers, numbers, numbers. We read these numbers every day, we hear them, we see them. Numbers, statistics, year-on-year comparisons.

This is the way refugees are talked about in Europe – and not only – every day. Every single day, we hear numbers – usually high numbers – followed by the word refugees. Sometimes migrants. Sometimes both, it does not really matter because what really matters are the numbers.

And numbers can so easily be used to scare. How many people are 1,000 people? I do not know, I have no idea what 1,000 people look like, but I do feel that it is a lot of people. So of course, when we hear that more than 44,000 have arrived in Europe this year, we can all imagine that is a lot of people. We cannot even imagine how many people are 44,000. I know I can’t.

Numbers are extremely important, of course. They give us a sense of the dimension of an issue. A 70-stories building is higher than a 3-stories building, we know that. A boat made for 15 people carrying 45 is dangerous, we know that. Yet, when the only way we hear about refugees is through numbers, we do not see people anymore, we only see numbers.

And then it is of course easy to be scared, it is easy to use those numbers to pursue short-term political goals, it is easy to see both a cultural threat and a moral obligation in those numbers – it just depends on which side you look from. Numbers are not people, they are just numbers. But when we talk about people using exclusively – mostly – numbers, we forget about people. We dehumanise people. And dehumanising is the first step for not caring. And if we do not care, why should we be worried about the futures of refugees? Why would we want any solutions?

We do not care about the lives, the dreams, the loves, the frustrations, the aspirations of numbers. We should care about those of people though. Because under every single number there is a life, there is a story. There are boring everyday routines, there are amazing adventures, there are horrific tales. Refugees are not just refugees. They are bakers, they are kindergarten teachers, they are companies’ CEOs, they are doctors. They are a sister who loves her brother but also hates him sometimes, they are a mother worried about making ends meet at the end of the month, they are teenagers looking for new friends in a strange place.

If we stopped using numbers so much and focus on the individuals instead, we could humanise people again. Those numbers could go back to being people, and we could maybe start to understand who these people are, what are their stories, why are they coming and what do they want for their future.

So let’s start looking for the individuals behind the numbers and the headlines, and let’s see, hear, read their stories. We can find them, if we only start looking. And maybe when we do, we can be surprised in realising how similar our worries, our aspirations, our ideas are.

Francesca Pierigh, research and communications consultant.


Watch this TED talk by Anders Fjellberg on finding the stories behind the numbers.


Image: Refugee Council USA

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