By Craig Loschmann
Few topics have stimulated public attention in recent years like that of conflict-induced forced migration. The world is witnessing concerningly high levels of displacement, with 65.6 million individuals uprooted from their homes by insecurity, persecution and disaster. However, contrary to popular belief, the extent of displacement today is not without precedent, and the vast majority of the world’s displaced flee within their own country’s borders or to neighboring countries within the Global South. Nonetheless, the elevated interest in forced migration has encouraged further academic research on the topic, helping to build our collective understanding of the dynamics of displacement and inform policy and practice.
Three Principle Lines of Research
While the study of conflict-induced forced migration is not new, recent multidisciplinary research has helped provide useful insight on a range of sub-topics. Focusing on three principle themes helps to provide a basic outline of the research agenda: 1) the drivers of forced migration; 2) the experiences of living in displacement; and 3) the impacts on host communities.
Looking first at the drivers, it is often assumed that forced migrants have little to no agency when making the decision to move. Even though there are extreme cases where an individual indeed has no choice in the matter, most displaced individuals have reflected on their options and made a mindful and likely difficult decision to leave their homes. Although insecurity and violence may be main motivating factors in that decision-making process, there are usually multiple motivations for deciding to move and the reasons to stay in exile may shift over the course of the migration experience itself. In this regard, recent scholarly work has challenged the hard separation between forced and voluntary migration and helped unpack this complex decision-making process in environments characterized by conflict, environmental degradation, abject poverty, and the like. Crucially, this line of research has provided the groundwork for a more realistic discussion on forced migration not limited by discrete labels that often overlap in crisis situations.
Turning to the experiences of displacement, there is a robust literature highlighting the variety of ways refugees and forced migrants’ cope with living in exile. While one side of this work focuses on basic protection-related issues like shelter, nutrition and health, another looks at socio-economic themes related to employment, education and social networks, among others. In this respect, economists have recently turned greater attention to investigating the economic lives of displaced populations in camp and urban settings. In addition, there is greater concern for the psychosocial effects of displacement, with research beginning to explore how the experience of living in exile influences one’s mental health. Many studies in this direction take care to consider often-overlooked sub-groups within the overall displaced population like women, children, and the elderly.
Contemporary research also provides greater recognition to the consequences of hosting refugees for local communities. While the arrival and extended presence of refugees may lead to increased competition for scarce resources like jobs, housing and social services, there is also growing evidence that refugees often have an overall positive effect on the local economies in part due to increased demand of goods and services. Moreover, the influx of assistance and investment in refugee-hosting communities often spills over to the local population and may continue to benefit them long after repatriation of the refugee population. However, it is important to keep in mind that there may be winners and losers within the host community itself, and therefore programs (e.g. cash assistance) targeting vulnerable groups of the local population need to be considered as well in refugee-hosting contexts. In addition, the way in which refugees and host communities interact and get along with each other is important to keep in mind, and there has recently been a growth of interest on how to minimize potential tension and conflict among groups and support overall social cohesion within hosting areas.
An Evolving Research Agenda
While the headline of ‘displacement at record highs’ is attention-grabbing, taking into consideration a few more specific trends helps provide nuance as well as mark how the research agenda has evolved in recent years and where it is heading.
First, protracted displacement is increasingly common with estimates that around three-quarters of all refugees are in prolonged exile for a period of greater than five years. As such, researchers are more interested in documenting the experiences and consequences of living in displacement for an extended period of time, sometimes for generations, with little prospect of a durable solution.
Second, refugee camps are the exception not the rule, as the majority of displaced individuals live in cities or towns. Scholars are therefore paying closer attention to urban displacement, including how to assist a vulnerable population that may reside in informal settlements in undesirable parts of town and work in the informal economy.
Third, even though we often associate conflict-induced forced migration with refugees, there are twice as many internally displaced persons globally as there are refugees. Given the prevalence of internal displacement yet the almost complete absence of political awareness and commitment towards this specific group, researchers are beginning to turn their focus to the specific vulnerabilities and dynamics associated with being displaced within one’s own country.
Fourth, despite the fact that voluntary repatriation is often discussed as the durable solution of choice and is promoted by governments and the international community, relatively little attention is given to the consequences of mass return to impoverished communities in post-conflict countries. Especially when the original displacement experience lasted for an extended period of time, the sudden return of individuals looking to reclaim land and housing may disrupt fragile social circumstances and threaten to spark renewed fighting in post-conflict settings.
The Way Forward
A key limitation in making progress on any of these topics is the availability of high-quality information in order to be able to generate empirically grounded findings. As with any hard-to-reach population, gathering data on displaced peoples is generally costly and difficult, yet an increase in purposively designed migration surveys coupled with innovative methodological advances have begun to provide researchers more opportunities to document the dynamics of displacement in ways not possible just a few years ago. Important in these new data collection efforts is the inclusion of refugee voices and perspectives to tease out bottom-up understandings from the displaced population themselves.
At the end of the day, building the knowledge base on conflict-induced forced migration is only of value if insights inform policymakers and practitioners working to improve the situation of displaced populations. Such an objective is all the more important considering the general consensus that traditional responses to displacement are currently failing to address the complexity of the challenges many countries now face. As a result new approaches are required that promote social inclusion, self-reliance and the general socio-economic wellbeing of refugees and host communities alike. In addition, innovative schemes are needed that help improve the financing of refugee-hosting nations and more generally facilitate burden-sharing among countries. Above all, new initiatives must take an evidence-based, human-centered approach to support displaced populations to not only survive, but to be able to recover and rebuild their lives.
Ph.D. Economics & Public Policy
Maastricht Graduate School of Governance UNU-MERIT, Maastricht University
Research Fellow, Maastricht Graduate School of Governance UNU-MERIT, Maastricht University
- UNHCR (2017). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016. Geneva: UNHCR.
- Postel H, Rathinasamy C, and Clemens M (2015). Europe’s Refugee Crisis Is Not as Big as You’ve Heard, and Not Without Recent Precedent. <https://www.cgdev.org/blog/europes-refugee-crisis-not-big-youve-heard-and-not-without-recent-precedent>.
- World Bank (2016). Forcibly Displaced: Toward a Development Approach Supporting Refugees, the Internally Displaced, and Their Hosts. Washington DC: The World Bank.
- Milner J (2016). Protracted Refugee Situations. in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh E, Loescher G, Long K and Sigona N (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) and Jordan Compact are recent examples.