‘I am not just a number. None of us are’

Across the sea: Nujeen Mustafa arrives at the Greek island of Lesbos in September 2015. © PA

This week, Nujeen Mustafa publishes a book about her journey from Syria. She asks us to think of refugees as people, not statistics. Meanwhile, UN politicians are doing the exact opposite.

‘You should fight for what you want in this world,’ Nujeen Mustafa told a BBC journalist at the border of Hungary last year. The 16-year-old was travelling through Europe in a wheelchair, after leaving her ‘horror movie’ life in Syria. She had learned English by watching American soap operas, and had crossed the sea in a rubber dinghy on the same day as Alan Kurdi, the young boy whose death shocked the world.

But she and her sister were lucky — they survived, and Nujeen has started school in Germany. Now she has written a book about her experiences. She hopes it will remind the world that refugees are people, not numbers.

As her story makes its way to bookshops, world leaders have gathered at the United Nations in New York to discuss the global migration crisis of which she is a part. And here, numbers are vitally important: 65.3 million people have fled their homes, including 5 million in 2015 alone; 34,000 more are displaced every day; 5 million have left Syria since 2011, with 1.1 million going to Europe last year, and 430,000 joining Nujeen in Germany. So far in 2016, at least 3,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean.

The numbers are staggering. It is no longer the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war; it is worse.

But the UN has struggled to come up with a response to these statistics. Yesterday’s talks did not yield any real policy changes; a pledge to resettle 10% of refugees in developed countries was scrapped last month before the politicians even arrived.

Today President Obama is hoping to do better by holding his own summit. But anti-immigration parties are putting pressure on many leaders at home, making global agreements extremely difficult.

Should politicians take Nujeen’s advice, and think about refugees as people rather than numbers?

Losing count

Yes, says Nujeen. Refugees have hopes and dreams like anyone else, but they have been through so much more. ‘I used to imagine my life as a regular girl, having a daily routine, coming back from school exhausted, doing her homework… everything normal for you is a big achievement for me.’ She clearly has amazing things to contribute to Germany — she even plans to be an astronaut one day. She is so much more than a number.

But we have to think about refugees as numbers, say politicians. Even Angela Merkel has had to admit that Germany can only take in so many; the country must provide enough beds, and school teachers, and language lessons for its new residents. On a global scale, politicians must organise refugee camps and allocate donations to those most in need. The human stories are moving — but to really make a difference we must put them aside and crunch the numbers.

You Decide

  1. Imagine you are a politician at Obama’s summit today. What do you focus on: people or numbers?
  2. How should the UN respond to the migration crisis?


  1. Of the 65.3 million displaced people in the world today, 21.3 million are registered as refugees. If the UN had agreed to resettle 10% of these, how many would have been left?
  2. Imagine you have been asked to speak at the UN about the refugee crisis. Write a speech which explains how you would tackle the problem.

Some People Say...

“People should be free to move to whichever country they want.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does it matter? Can’t we do both?
Merkel has attempted this in Germany by opening the doors to asylum seekers while still looking for a long-term plan. But this approach has brought its own problems.
Like what?
Initially other countries in Europe accused her of making the crisis worse by encouraging more people to come. Now she is facing a political backlash at home too; the anti-immigration party AFD beat her party in a local election earlier this month.
Why are voters turning against the refugees?
Over one million people arrived in Germany in a short space of time, and there are concerns about how they will integrate into society. Over the summer, terror attacks heightened tensions even more — although it is worth noting that there has been an increase in attacks against refugees too.

Word Watch

The Syrian civil war has been ongoing since 2011.
Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair is published by Harper Collins on Thursday.
65.3 million people
This is roughly the population of the UK, and it includes anyone who has been forced to leave their home. All of these statistics are provided by the UN’s official figures, unless otherwise stated.
This figure comes from the German interior ministry, and it only includes the 2015 asylum seekers from Syria. In total, the country accepted more than one million asylum applications that year.
3,000 people
According to the International Organization for Migration, as of July 22nd 2016. In 2015 that figure was not reached until October, leading many to predict that the death toll will be far higher this year.
Second world war
According to the historian Malcolm J. Proudfoot, 60 million Europeans were forced to become refugees during and immediately after the war.
Own summit
To take part, countries will have to promise more aid contributions, or volunteer more places for refugees.


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