Tough Choices: The Reality of Refugee Policy

By: Jyotishka Biswas, Kalki Seksaria, Mike Drachkovitch, and Felipe Lozano-Landinez

The data says that there are thousands of refugees entering the European Union every week. The current massive migration of refugees to the EU presents both a moral and resource-constraint issue to the countries receiving the influx. Decisions about how to balance the inherent trade-off are made by political leaders in all of these countries in a real-time, imperfect information environment. We want to tell this story to unpack the static-ness of the numbers and show the human decisions that underly a country’s response to try and best manage this challenge. The country that we decided to go with for this game prototype is Austria.

Our audience for this project is one placed within an educational setting, with the idea being that the participatory data game serves as a simulation of the types of decisions that a political leader would have to make during this crisis and will help students (who are immediately affected in some way by the EU refugee criss and would find themselves in similar tough situations in their future careers) better understand the complexities of the issue at hand for a government decision-maker. As an example group of this abstract decision, we have chosen University of Vienna Political Science Masters Students.

For this project, we imagined that we were the International Organization for Migration, and intergovernmental body focused on addressing migration issues throughout the world. With that lens, our goals for this project were to 1) Help students better understand the underlying complexities of the EU refugee crisis challenge in a more visceral, interactive manner.

Then, if our goal was to be successful, we had two calls to action for the students: 1) Push them towards advocating for better data collection capabilities by the European Union AND/OR 2)Encourage them to help the efforts of the IOM by working with the organization (internships, full-time, etc.).

Our data source for this game was the Refugee Arrivals along the Balkan Route data set from the UNHRC (link here). It presents information on number of refugees arriving every day to multiple countries from October 1st, 2015 through today.

The biggest aspect of the data, our data story, that we wanted to highlight was the inherent uncertainty and incredible difficulty inferencing anything about the future with past data (ex. What will be the number of refugees coming in next week based on what we know now?), and how that results in an incredibly complex decision-making challenge for a political leader.

Our choice of country meant that we segmented the information just for Austria. We focused on using the data from the first seven weeks (so from the first week of October 2015 through the third week of November 2015), and calculated a confidence interval of 95% for the # of incoming refugees for each of the weeks. This was meant to represent the data set that a political leader would be looking at when making a decision about how many refugees to plan for in the future (mean and uncertainty in the numbers over the last week). In the game, we then have a leader make a decision based off of that range (we constrained the decision set to five possible choices), and then matched the leader’s choice to the real # of refugees that came in the next week, which we know from the data set.

The setup of the game was that a decision’s consequences were determined by the difference between a leader’s decision (# of refugees to prepare for for next week) and the actual number of refugees that came in. The consequences manifest in the approval rating of the political leader, which is meant to show the political reality of making decisions that, while morally good, take away resources from your country/constituency. The player has two main objectives for the game: To help as many refugees as possible while also managing their approval rating.

We think this is an appropriate and effective way to tell the data story because it is reflective of a process that has a high amount of uncertainty inherently and that has to deal with the political realities of situations, no matter how well intended the decisions were. Essentially, the result is not fully in your control, and you just have to do your best. This creates both empathy with the political leader’s role and shows the complexity of an issue like the refugee crisis in a way that can only be really seen when being part of the decision-making process. In addition, the game has the intention on focusing on human lives and not equating them to capital explicitly, which humanizes the numbers and respects the lives of the people that the numbers represent.

At the end of the day, players come out with a better understanding of the issue and a more human view of numbers that they may have heard on the news and/or seen on TV due to their immersion into the decision-making process.

You can see our presentation and simulation at this link.