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PhD graduate's framework helps humanitarian organisations with data on refugees
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Alec Basson]
Published: 09/12/2019

​​​A researcher at Stellenbosch University (SU) has proposed a framework that could make it easier for humanitarian organisations to obtain vital data on forced migrants, meaning the difference between life and death.

“The big dilemma with refugee crises, such as those experienced in Syria and Venezuela, is the significant lack of data. Even the records kept of people in refugee camps are not always accurate. There also are many undocumented refugees, as well as those who choose to move within the borders of their country (i.e. internally displaced people). This makes it extremely difficult for humanitarian organisations to predict the scale and movement dynamics of these individuals," says Dr Christa de Kock from the Department of Industrial Engineering at SU. She obtained her doctorate in Industrial Engineering at SU's first December graduation ceremony on Monday (9 December 2019).

Dr De Kock says while the international community has become more aware of refugee crises and, in particular, conflict-induced forced displacement, it's still a challenge to accurately portray the true scale and dynamics of the issue, as not all available data are credible or complete.

She adds that there are still significant gaps in the data required to facilitate long-term development planning in crisis situations.

“More often than not, research does not focus on those internally displaced or on undocumented migrants, which augments the gap in available data. The unknown number of forcibly displaced people represents an obstacle to humanitarian organisations, especially when the situation is critical."

To help address these challenges, Dr De Kock proposed a generic framework that can assist the end-user in modelling the actual severity and extent of the conflict scenario, the characteristics of the population of people considered, and, most importantly, the underlying decision-making process of the forcibly displaced people based on their personal characteristics.

The framework was implemented in the form of a computerised concept demonstrator (a demo model based on the framework) designed to track the movement of forcibly displaced Syrians as well as the influx of refugees and undocumented migrants into countries neighbouring Syria.

Dr De Kock says the framework can be used to develop a simulation model of the specific group of people being studied (agent-based model) in contexts of conflict-induced forced migration to gain an understanding not only of the numerous factors leading to such migrations, but also of the behaviour and actions of internally displaced people, refugees and undocumented migrants when confronted with conflict. In this way, it can facilitate the modelling of the decision making and movement of forcibly displaced people, such as internally displaced people, refugees and undocumented migrants, she adds.

“It can also be used to estimate the number of forcibly displaced persons, refugees, undocumented migrants and internally displaced persons; to predict population fluctuations within countries affected by a crisis; and to present an animation output of a simulation model in a user-friendly manner."

Highlighting the value of her research, Dr De Kock says “the ability to predict the movement of forcibly displaced people with some measure of accuracy is critical to aid organisations in facilitating the planning of logistics and procurement of resources aimed at supporting those fleeing violence and persecution."

Dr De Kock says the framework could be applied in any conflict situation where there's forced migration. 

“Authorities can use it when investigating the conflict situations which are causing the increase of refugees in a particular country."

Dr De Kock says her study and the implementation of the proposed framework may assist humanitarian organisations and policy-makers in strategic planning which, ultimately, may help provide the necessary aid to those forcibly displaced.

Photo: Dr Christa de Kock after the graduation ceremony. Photographer: Stefan Els


Dr Christa de Kock

Department of Industrial Engineering

Faculty of Engineering

Stellenbosch University

Tel: 021 808 4231



Martin Viljoen

Manager: Media

Corporate Communication

Stellenbosch University

Tel: 021 808 4921