One in 82 million: Breathing life into numbing numbers

Melissa Fleming
Jun 21 · 4 min read
A Syrian refugee boy I met in a refugee camp in Southern Turkey in 2015.

The number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution hit a record 82.4 million in 2020. That figure has doubled within a decade, with 1% of humanity now forcibly displaced, according to figures released on Friday by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

These are the statistics of global suffering. Behind the numbers are millions of men, women, and children, forced at gunpoint to abandon everything they own. These are people who live for years in limbo, often in danger and grappling with personal loss and trauma. They deserve urgent solutions.

As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi put it: “Behind each number is a person forced from their home and a story of displacement, dispossession and suffering. They merit our attention and support — not just with humanitarian aid, but in finding solutions to their plight.”

Our call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic has not halted a decade-long escalation of global violence and displacement. If anything, border closures during the pandemic raised the barriers even higher for people seeking safety, while the number of refugees resettled fell to its lowest since 2001.

At the UN, we communicate these figures in order to spur change. We want better lives for these vulnerable millions. We want governments to change course, the rich to donate, fighters to lay down their arms. Yet time and again we come up against a fundamental challenge: The numbing power of statistics.

Look at that number again, 82.4 million people. Every single one of them is a human being with a unique story of suffering and loss. Difficult to grasp, isn’t it? The truth is that however hard we try to comprehend the scale of global human suffering; the raw figures leave us cold. They are simply overwhelming.

“The more who die, the less we care.”

Worse still, the larger figures, the less they move us. As social scientist Paul Slovic puts it, “the more who die, the less we care.” As humanitarians and communicators, it is our job to cut through that numbness, to breathe life into global statistics and give them back their humanity.

Happily enough, there is an effective way to do so. Psychologists say it is far easier for us to relate to a single person’s story than a number. Compelling individual stories have the power to reveal the human emotions behind the statistics, helping the world relate to the otherwise unimaginable suffering of millions of strangers.

I used this formula in my two TED talks, and people responded with millions of views, thousands of sympathetic comments, and questions on how to help. I took individual storytelling a step further in a book I wrote about Doaa, a teen Syrian refugee who survived one of the worst shipwrecks on the Mediterranean Sea, rescuing a baby girl. The book has been published in more than a dozen languages and a young readers’ edition is being taught in U.S. schools. It is also being developed into a major motion picture. Although a true story, it has all the elements of a Hollywood film. Most refugee stories do.

My book tells the story of Doaa, and in turn, her story tells the story of the Syria war, why people flee, why they risks their lives crossing perilous seas and why they deserve our compassion and support.

This is the crux of my job at the United Nations. As my team and I inform the public about the state of our world, we seek to break through the daily drumbeat of dismal headlines and communicate the human stories of suffering, survival and triumph behind them. It is not always an easy task, especially in times like these.

Amplifying vulnerable voices means first capturing the world’s attention. But people have a limited capacity to digest messages of doom and gloom. Audiences crave stories that tell of hope, resilience, and practical solutions to the globe’s most intractable problems. We can provide them. We can urge people to act.

We can tell of leaders bringing peace to communities, or donors giving desperately needed COVID vaccines to the world’s poorest countries. We can tell of businesses and individuals working to step the world back from the brink of climate disaster. We can tell of communities hosting refugees, of displaced people building new lives.

Most people want to help make the world a better place. Most people know that acts of compassion lend satisfaction and meaning to their lives. Yet tapping into that generosity means helping the world remember its forgotten millions. We do that by telling stories that make people relate to them. Only if people relate, can they begin to care. Only if they care, will they begin to act.

We The Peoples

Voices from around the United Nations, with updates on…

We The Peoples

Voices from around the United Nations, with updates on digital diplomacy, peace, security, human rights and sustainable development.

Melissa Fleming

Written by

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.

We The Peoples

Voices from around the United Nations, with updates on digital diplomacy, peace, security, human rights and sustainable development.