The demographic science behind the 92,901 reported deaths in Syria

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Today the UN released a chilling and very specific number of people who have died in Syria since violence broke out there in March 2011. 92,901 people are dead as a result of the Assad government crackdown on rebels. To get a number this exact, you need to use science. Call it the demographics of death.


When you hear a number like that, you wonder how somebody came up with it. The answer is that several human rights groups personally talked to individuals in Syria who could confirm the names of the dead. And then a group of human rights demographers (yes, those exist) crunched the numbers, making sure the reported names matched actual records, and that there were no duplicate entries.

Megan Price was one of those demographers. She works with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, and she explained a little bit about how they arrived at this number — as well as why it is probably lower than the actual number dead:

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report prepared by me and my colleagues describing the current state of reported killings in the Syrian Arab Republic from the beginning of the conflict in March 2011 through April 2013. (UN news release here.) This report is an update of work we published in January 2013. This updated analysis includes records from eight data sources documenting a total of 92,901 reported killings.

Our analysis begins with 263,055 total records reported by the eight data sources that include sufficient identifying information (name, date, and location*) to conduct record linkage (i.e., the process by which we attempt to ensure that each victim is counted only once). After comparing each record via a combination of human examination and computer automation we identified 92,901 unique records of killings.

Based on our experience with similar data in other conflicts, we believe that this enumeration—92,901—is a lower bound on the true number of killings. Data collected for this analysis include additional records of anonymous or otherwise unidentified victims. These records cannot be included in this analysis because it is impossible to determine if they describe victims also described in other records. But they do provide an indication that at least some victims are unlikely to have been counted in the 92,901 unique records of killings described in this report. In addition to anonymous or unidentified victims, there are certainly also victims whose stories have not yet been told to anyone. Undocumented victims include those whose bodies have not yet been found, victims of violence that was only witnessed by the victim and perpetrator, victims whose loved ones have not yet come forward because they do not feel safe enough to do so, or because they have not found anyone to whom to tell their story, or because they have left Syria and are now refugees.

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Find out more about the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, and how they conducted this study, here.



If I were into statistics or metal, I would totally want to start a nerdy metal* band called the Demographers of Death…

*Or possibly goth, but I know their genre of music even less than I know metal. Richmond is always going on about Cradle of Filth and that's about where my knowledge of the genre begins and ends.