Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is gradually evolving into a permanent settlement. (Photo: United Nations/

How do refugees in exile manage to sustain their livelihoods? And which policies can help the ones who do not? CMI is a partner in a new EU Horizon 2020 project that will answer a question of crucial importance to policymakers.

Protracted displacement situations, where refugees live in a temporary residence for a longer time period, are a growing concern to policy makers, human rights activists, NGOs offering assistance, and not least, the refugees themselves. Not knowing where life will take them and often without access to jobs, education and health services, refugees are stuck in a situation where it is very difficult to climb the socio-economic ladder and build a better life for themselves. Their success depends on many factors, like their networks in their new, temporary residence, their connections with family and friends back home or in other countries, support systems, and refugee and migration policies.

-Refugees are trying to build their lives within a host community that is more or less open and provides more or less support, says Sarah A. Tobin, senior researcher at CMI. 

Tobin is part of a team of researchers from CMI, the Internationales Konversionszentrum Bonn GmbH, Aristotelio Panepistimio Thessalonikis, the Forum Internazionale ed Europeo Diricherche sull’ Immigrazione, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid, the University of Leiden, the University of Sussex, Yarmouk University, the University of Dar es salaam and Addis Ababa University that have got funding from the EU Horizon 2020 programme.

Developing concrete assessment tools
The EU has struggled to find viable solutions for refugees that are trapped in situations of long-term displacement. The main objective of the TRAFIG (Transnational Figurations of Displacement) project is to find policies that are efficient in assisting refugees in building a new life. The researchers will also develop a tool that can be used to assess which refugees are in most need of assistance.

-Resources are not infinite, especially in situations that last over time. The tool we develop will be important part of EUs’ prioritization of which groups of refugees get the most resources, says Tobin.

The researchers will use a comparative perspective and document the life trajectories of people affected by protracted displacement as well as strategies for dealing with them on national, European and global levels. The international composition of the research team reflects the international scope of the project which will analyse policies and do extensive empirical research in six regions of the world; the Horn of Africa, East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southern and Western Europe.


Displacement Situations in TRAFIG´s Study Regions and Research Countries


One of the factors of particular interest to the researchers are the refugees’ networks and how they make use of them to improve their life situations. Their networks, locally and across geographical boundaries, are often key to how well they succeed.

-A common assumption about refugees is that the larger networks they have, the less likely they are to be stuck in the limbo of protracted displacement, says Tobin.

The researchers will study how important these networks really are and which opportunities they represent when it comes to improving refugees’ life situation. Do these networks make refugees more self-reliant and resilient? Which networks and connections are the most important? And how do you assist refugees that lack them?

Research at the intersection of moral and pragmatism
More people than ever before in human history have fled their homes and are now living in the outskirts of society, not really part of the finely tuned security net or web of opportunities that citizenship or permanent residency can give. With the unprecedented influx of refugees and asylum seekers European countries have experienced over the past few years, research on migration is a political mine field.

On the one hand, the EU is looking for and funding research that can contribute to better and more efficient policies with the aim of helping the most vulnerable. On the other hand, restricting the influx of refugees is more often than not part of the debate and politics of migration. These apparent opposites between aiming to help and aiming to make Europe seem as a less attractive option for people on the run could potentially put a research project like TRAFIG between a rock and a hard place. Their role is not merely to describe a situation, their role is to prescribe a cure in what is one of the most contentious political debates of our times. What if the cure is not to the EU’s liking?

-We are doing research in a context where global policies are driven by the idea that we want refugees to be located in certain places. We need to take this into account, and whenever it is right to do so, speak against these policies, says Tobin.

The TRAFIG-researchers depend highly on ethnographic methods. Facing a flammable political climate, this is one of the strengths of the project, she argues. Ethnography is well suited for critique.

-Through our project and research methods, we show that the people in question are not just numbers, despite what the media says. They are humans. The real power of TRAFIG is that we show their humanity. Through that approach, we will have the power to influence public opinion and hopefully also policy makers, says Tobin.