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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder11. Population Estimation and Registration
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOverview
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentPopulation Estimates
View the documentRegistration
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes





Refugee emergencies are characterized by a mobile population, often with rapidly fluctuating numbers. It is often difficult to collect exact information on the total number and composition of the population.


To find out the total number of the population of concern, and the breakdown of the population by age and sex, and by groups of special significance. The exact identity of those special groups will depend on the particular circumstances of the emergency.

Principles of Response

· Knowing who the refugees are and their number is essential for an efficient and cost effective operation;

· Formal mass registration should normally be the aim. Where this is not immediately possible, this can be reached in stages, starting with the first stage of population estimation;

· The final goal is a full registration of the refugee population;

· Information collected will be important for voluntary repatriation and re-integration into country of origin;

· Involvement and understanding by the refugees themselves is essential to the success of registration.


· Use population estimation techniques as a first step;

· Plan towards a full registration, keeping the population informed;

· Identify resources needed for full registration;

· Review the need for full registration and implement each phase towards full registration as soon as each is feasible.


· Knowing how many refugees there are and who they are is fundamental for planning and managing an efficient operation. There are several ways of determining numbers with sufficient accuracy;

· Although an accurate enumeration is essential, a formal mass registration should not necessarily be an automatic response at the start of an emergency;

· Successful registration needs good planning, careful implementation and consistent monitoring.

1. To plan and manage an efficient operation, one of the first things to know is how many refugees there are and who they are. An accurate enumeration is therefore an essential component of any assessment.

2. Chapter II, 8(f) of the UNHCR Statute states that the High Commissioner shall provide for the protection of refugees by "obtaining from Governments information concerning the number and condition of refugees in their territories". It must be made clear to the authorities that an assistance operation cannot be carried out without this information.


Although an accurate enumeration is essential, a formal mass registration should not necessarily be an automatic response at the start of an emergency.

There are a number of methods for accurate population estimation (including age/sex breakdown) which do not require formal registration. In some circumstances these simpler methods may be preferable as an initial response.

4. The main advantage of registration is that it provides a unique opportunity to acquire basic information for subsequent programming. It also helps avoid disputes about refugee numbers. Registration will also be an essential component of any individual or family tracing programme and may be an important factor in protecting refugees.

5. The most practical time to register refugees is when they arrive at a reception/ transit centre or site for settlement. Registration is often carried out in conjunction with health screening. Transferring refugees to a new site also provides a good opportunity for mass registration.

6. A discrepancy may arise with time, between official figures and the best estimates of those working closest to the refugees. Unless this discrepancy is swiftly resolved major problems will follow. Small discrepancies are likely, given the difficulties in enumeration and registration. Large ones can be avoided by timely action to verify numbers through the various methods set out in this chapter.

7. For detailed information on registration and population estimation techniques, refer to Registration - A Practical Guide for Field Staff.

Population Estimates

· For most methods of population estimation, it is important to understand the community structure of the beneficiary population;

· Estimates should be updated regularly.


8. The following methods can be used to estimate the population:

i. Counting;

ii. Administrative records;

iii. Lists compiled by refugee leaders;

iv. Extrapolation and Global Positioning System (GPS);

v. Aerial photography.

9. Understanding the community structure of the beneficiary population is important for most methods of population estimation - for example, living arrangements and the average number in a family group.

10. Annex 1 provides a format for reporting population estimates as part of an overall situation report. Estimates should be updated regularly.


11. If there are easily identified entry or transit points during a refugee influx (e.g. bridges or transportation sites), then a daily count of the number of people passing through these points can give a reasonable estimate of the refugee population. Sufficient staff should be immediately positioned at bridges and other critical points to provide 24 hour coverage. These staff members should be provided with counters to aid counting, and with simple recording and reporting forms.

Administrative Records

12. Local authorities at the refugee site may collect population data on the refugees. If possible, national census and other population data should be obtained from the country of origin as a means of cross-checking the host area data.

Lists Compiled by Refugee Leaders

13. Lists of names can be compiled by refugee leaders and verified through a process agreed with the refugee community.

To ensure the system is as accurate and fair as possible, it is particularly important to understand the community structure.

The normal community structure and hierarchy in a society are often disrupted during exodus and different people often take on the role of leadership in the country of asylum. It is essential to understand the role, motives and effectiveness of the new leadership. Community services and field staff can help in this. Records compiled by refugee leaders may even eliminate the need for registration, provided they are checked and verified at random and updated regularly.

14. The lists can also be useful in identifying vulnerable refugees who need special assistance. Community services staff should visit vulnerable individuals and families to help confirm the accuracy of lists provided by the leaders.

Shelter Count and Extrapolation

15. Population estimates can also be obtained by calculating the total area of the camp, then counting shelters in a fraction of the camp, from which the population of the whole camp can be extrapolated.

16. The total surface area of the camp can be determined in a number of ways. It can be determined by measuring the average length and average width of the camp by pacing, or by using a wheel meter or measurement tape (if the camp is small), or by driving (if the camp is large), using the trip meter to estimate distance.

17. If there is a map of the camp, the surface area of the camp can be estimated by overlaying scaled gridlines on the map, and adding up the number of the squares falling within the camp's boundaries.

18. Finally the surface area can be calculated using GPS. GPS is a system which includes a hand-held device (about the size of a large calculator, costing about US $200 in 1999) which displays on a small screen the latitude and longitude of its current position. The device uses satellites to establish its position. It does not work under heavy forest cover or in deep narrow valleys because it needs an unobstructed sightline to several satellites.

19. The GPS Is used to find the geographical coordinates of the camp perimeter. The more irregular the camp shape, the more perimeter points will be needed. Once the camp perimeter is established, the surface area of the camp can be calculated in the following ways:

i. Communicate the perimeter coordinates to Headquarters Mapping Unit where these can be used to calculate the area and the result will be communicated back. Alternatively, perimeter coordinates can be marked on paper which has scaled gridlines, using the X-axis to represent longitude and the Y-axis to represent latitude. A line is drawn joining these points. Counting the scaled squares inside the perimeter will give the total camp area. The distance represented by one degree of longitude varies, getting smaller moving towards the North and South poles and larger towards the equator. In order to use this method, the distance which one degree represents at the exact location of the camp must be found out. This could be scaled off a map of the area, if it has sufficiently large scale;

ii. Computer software (called Geographical Information Systems or GIS) can automatically map and calculate camp area based on the perimeter points established by GPS. Technical assistance for setting up this software can be obtained from Headquarters.

20. Once the surface area has been established, select a minimum of three sample areas within the camp, each representing about one thirtieth of the total camp area.

For example, if the total surface area of the camp is 600,000 sq. meters, then each sample area should be 20,000 sq. meters. Any variation of length or width which yields 20,000 sq. meters could be used for the sample sections. The normal GPS is not sufficiently accurate for use in measuring the size of the sample area and conventional means of measuring should be used instead.

21. Count the number of family shelters in each of the three sample sections. Obtain a figure for the average number of shelters per section (i.e. - in 20,000 sq. meters). Then multiply by 30 to extrapolate this over the entire camp.

For example, if 3 sample sections have 120, 134, and 150 shelters respectively, then the average number of shelters in a sample section will be (120 + 134 + 145) / 3 = 133. Thus the total number of shelters in the 600,000 sq. meters camp will be 133 × 30 = 3,990 shelters.

22. Determine average family size per shelter to estimate the total population. For example, if the average family size per shelter is 5, then the total population is 5 × 3,990 = 19,950.

Aerial Photography

23. Aerial photographs (or sometimes videos) of a camp can be used to count the number of family shelters. This can be accomplished to a limited extent by taking a picture from a nearby hill, tower or tall building. In addition to professional aerial photography, "amateur" photographs taken, for example, from a UNHCR plane can be used for estimation. Flying over the site may require the permission of the authorities.

24. Aerial photographs must be accompanied by a ground survey to establish the average family size per shelter and the percentage of empty shelters.

25. The number of shelters appearing on the photograph (or mosaic of photographs) multiplied by the average family size per shelter will give an estimate of the overall population.

26. It is important to define an appropriate scale for the photography. This will depend, in part, on the size of the camps. High altitude flights produce fewer photographs to handle and interpret, but it will be more difficult to distinguish the shelters.

27. The results of aerial surveys can be integrated within the GIS from which maps can then be produced.


· Registration provides the more detailed information needed for the efficient management of an assistance operation;

· Registration is carried out over several phases.


28. Protection and assistance can be provided more efficiently if it is based on the demographic information which can be obtained through registration. Registration may be required at different phases of an operation, for example: when there is a new refugee influx; when there is a voluntary repatriation operation (see chapter 19 on voluntary repatriation); at any time during an assistance programme to update information on the population, or to collect information on special groups e.g. unaccompanied minors (see the annex to chapter 10 on community services). The information below relates mainly to registration at the time of an influx or for updating.

29. In order to cope with large numbers it is preferable to separate the components of a registration exercise into six distinct phases, according to the immediate needs of the population and the time and staff available to carry out the task. Each phase should be viewed as an entity in its own right, but each leading to the next phase when circumstances permit.

30. The six phases of registration are:

i. Estimating the population;

ii. Planning the registration and informing the refugees;

iii. Fixing the population;

iv. Collecting information and issuing registration cards;

v. Computerization;

vi. Verification and updating.

31. The 'ideal' in registration is to work as closely as possible with the refugee population and its leadership, promoting community responsibility and participation in all stages of the process. Whilst this may not always be possible initially, it should be a major objective for both registration and camp management.

32. Formal registration requires considerable time and personnel resources and needs the active involvement of key partners to supply the necessary personnel. Key partners include government, other UN agencies, NGOs and the authorities responsible for security. Registration should only be carried out when:

i. The safety of the staff and of the refugees can be assured;

ii. The refugees accept the process;

iii. The key partners can supply personnel to help carry out the registration;

iv. There are sufficient quantities of registration materials and other equipment, including logistical support and communications.

Standard UNHCR Registration Materials

33. Standard materials for registration are stockpiled at Headquarters, and are sufficient to register 300,000 refugees. The materials include, for example, standard cards and forms, wristbands, fixing tokens, etc. These materials are included as part of a refugee registration package - see Appendix 2, Catalogue of Emergency Response Resources which has further details of these resources and how to obtain them.

Registration Phases

Phase 1: Estimating the population

34. This is the initial step to determine if there is a need for a full registration and/or to establish the planning figures for the registration exercise. It also provides working figures for the population for operational planning prior to the availability of more detailed population information.

Phase 2: Planning the registration and informing refugees

35. Designate a focal point to take responsibility for planning and executing the registration. A pilot registration in another camp can help identify potential difficulties. Planning should be a joint exercise with the concerned partners, including refugees. Staff training may be required at this stage. Ensure that the necessary staffing, equipment, supplies, security, telecommunications, vehicles and logistical support will be available on the date of the exercise. Decide on the level of information to be collected on a control sheet or registration form, and computerization.

36. At the same time as planning, there should be an intensive information campaign aimed at the refugee population at large (not just the leaders) informing the refugees of the procedures and benefits of registration.

Phase 3: Fixing the population

37. Give each individual in the target population a fixing token (see Annex 2) or wristband.

This defines and temporarily freezes the size of the group on whom more detailed information will be collected later. Without the fixing phase, registration will become a revolving door, open to escalating distortion and abuse. It must be done rapidly (preferably within a few hours, maximum one day) to avoid multiple and/or bogus registration. While the population may be given only short notice of when this will take place, it is necessary to ensure that they understand what is happening.

Phase 4: Collecting information and issuing registration cards

a) Collecting limited information on control sheets and issuing temporary registration cards

38. This phase (including issuing temporary registration cards) should be carried out before the next food distribution because the fixing token or wristband is not linked to verifiable information about persons in need, and cannot be used reliably for food and relief distribution.

39. Usually there will be no time to collect detailed information immediately, yet assistance should be distributed urgently and basic demographic data is needed. The first step therefore is to exchange the fixing token or wristband for a temporary registration card (also used as ration card - see Annex 2) to all heads of family, and collect limited information on control sheets (see Annex 3). In most instances this information will be limited to the name of the head of family, the size and age/sex breakdown of the family and the number of the temporary registration card, with an indication of any immediately visible vulnerable family members (see Annexes 4 and 5).

b) Completing registration forms and distributing of registration cards

40. The second step is to record detailed information about the families on Registration Forms (see Annex 4) and to issue long-term registration cards (also used as ration cards, the standard UNHCR card lasts about one year or 24 to 36 distributions). Where this is done immediately after the fixing phase (without the intervening step of temporary registration cards) there will be time constraints. Where it is done after the issue of temporary cards it can be spread over a longer period of time, with a cut off date for the validity of the temporary cards.

It is the Registration Form that constitutes the core document of a UNHCR registration and which will provide the basis for all future reference, analysis, verification and updating of the registration.

41. This phase provides a verifiable linkage between the identity of persons of concern and the very simple forms of documentation needed for processing large numbers of people for assistance distribution. The two-step process of information collecting is used because the second step can take considerable time, and registration information is needed in the interim for commodity distribution. It is particularly important in this phase to have personnel who speak the language and to ensure there Is a common code for transliteration between alphabets, particularly for names.

Phase 5: Computerization

42. Computerization can either start after registration cards have been distributed or at the same time if there are sufficient resources. Computerization is normally carried out using the "Field Based Registration System" (FBARS). Standard codes are used in UNHCR Registration Forms to facilitate the collection and input of data, particularly data on groups at risk (see Annex 5).

43. Data can be entered on-site by trained data-entry clerks or by out-sourcing to an off-site specialized data entry company. The data should be computerized as soon as possible and not more than a few months after being collected on the registration forms, otherwise it will be outdated and unusable.

44. FBARS can handle two types of registration, either by family unit (control sheet) or by individual (standard registration form). It also has a convoy management module which can be used during organized mass movement. It can be used by both UNHCR Offices and by Governments and implementing partners.

45. FBARS has easy-to-use search and report facilities and can produce information for planning, monitoring and reporting, for example:

i. Data on the numbers and rate of arrival;

ii. Data on refugee groups including on vulnerable groups;

iii. Data consolidated both regionally and globally;

iv. Food distribution lists;

v. Passenger manifests.

46. FBARS is available with the UNHCR registration materials (see above). The software and documentation are currently available in English, French and Russian. Information and support for the use of FBARS is available from the Information and Computing Services Section at Headquarters.

Phase 6: Verification and information updating

47. Registration information will need to be updated as the population changes with births, deaths and population movements. There should be a system to do this from the start. The registered numbers should be cross-checked with other information, for example, births and deaths can be monitored through the health services, and population movement monitored through any of the methods for population estimation described above.

48. Registration documents can acquire monetary value, especially if they are used to access assistance. There should be a system to check these documents, for example random verification at food distribution points to ensure the refugees are not using other people's documents or forged documents.

49. Verification is a continuous process, therefore routine verification, including house to house visits, at food distribution centres, etc., should become a standard, regular and frequent part of monitoring. Shelters should be given an address (section/block/individual shelter number) which will be linked to the individual family registration information.

Key References

Registration - A Practical Guide For Field Staff, UNHCR, Geneva, 1994.


Annex 1 - Format for reporting on population in emergency situation reports.

Period: From ___________ to___________


Pop. at end of period

status of



at start


Vol. return




% of

who are


Main source of information is Government; UNHCR; NGO
Main basis of the information is Registration; Estimate

Annex 2


Annex 3 - Control Sheet

Feuille de contr/I>


Annex 4 - Registration Form

Formulaire d'engregistrement


Annex 5 - Codes for UNHCR Registration Forms

Codes pour les formulaires HCR d'enregistrement


Relation to HOH
Lien de Parentvec CDF










Single Parent
Parent seul(e)







Secondary Secondaire


Single Female
Femme seule









Personne e
non accompagn/I>









non accompagnI>








Physically Disabled

Handicap) physique





Education non


Mentally III

Malade mental(e)





No Formal

Aucune Education


Chronically III

Malade chronique


Other family






Missing Child

Enfant disparu


Unrelated person
belonging to
the household

ang vivant
avec la famille