University of Sussex

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In the shadows of UNHCR'S data-fiction: an inconsistency framework and platform for humanitarian counter-narratives

posted on 2024-03-27, 15:11 authored by Ceren YukselCeren Yuksel

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) often plays a state substitution role when national governments pass their responsibility to the organisation to administer the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. This means that UNHCR, rather than supervising the implementation of international refugee law by governments, becomes responsible for every aspect of refugees' lives, from refugee status determination to the realisation of the three durable solutions (local integration, repatriation, resettlement) within the governing framework of different rights and freedoms enlisted in the law. UNHCR's accountability towards refugees is primarily assessed through a fiscal lens. Local data are globally harnessed to present financial needs to donors to close the gap between the intent of the law and the experiences of those being quantified in data. Carefully refined and selected data are then disseminated across multiple digital media platforms to communicate whether the organisation's humanitarian response is worthwhile for external audiences (governments, donors, scholars, and the broader public) to evaluate. The impact of these efforts is measured as multi-billion-dollar funds spent every year. UNHCR's mediation of refugees' experiences through data has a broader impact than merely shaping how it produces and presents its content to audiences. It also influences algorithmic visibility, fostering a dominant digital narrative that is primarily shaped by the content produced and widely disseminated by UNHCR. My practice-led doctoral research project explores how digital media technologies, guided by the principles of digital humanities scholarship, can be utilised to identify and address instances of rights violations committed through UNHCR's direct and indirect actions or acts of omission. I reveal an overarching role of the humanitarian worker in today's digital age, the 'digital humanitarian', with a focus on their unique witnessing position that mediates and creates the link between first-hand experiences and the processed data. This, in turn, influences the narrative surrounding forcibly displaced persons in offline and online politics of UNHCR's humanitarian work. Taking an autoethnographic account as an ex-employee of UNHCR specialised in system design and data interpretation as my departure point, the written component of my research lays out systemic biases in UNHCR's data, with a genealogy of affiliations in the organisation's data production processes and structures (law, people, systems). For the practice component I propose a set of design criteria and a digital archival prototype that indexes errors, erasures, and simplifications as patterns of inconsistency between phenomena and their representation. I draw on the narratives of UNHCR staff as data creators, and on evidence provided in scholarship and by advocacy collectives. The prototype, functioning as an intermediate artifact akin to a minimum viable product, aims to establish a foundation to critically frame and address shortcomings and gaps in UNHCR's humanitarian actions and communication, and to strive towards a more accountable humanitarian system in the future.


File Version

  • Published version



Department affiliated with

  • Media and Film Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

Full text available

  • Yes


Cecile Chevalier and Anke Schwittay

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