25 years of forced migration

Forced Migration Review (FMR), based in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford, is marking its 25th anniversary.

The free magazine, which is available in print and online, reaches a worldwide readership of at least 20,000, making it the most widely-read publication on forced migration and issues relating to refugees.

The periodical started life as a black-and-white booklet known as the Refugee Participation Network newsletter and was initiated by the founder of Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond.

FMR is now published in English, French, Spanish and Arabic and aims to stimulate debate and provide a forum for sharing knowledge about refugees, internally displaced people and stateless people.

FMR contributor Jeff Crisp, from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has written an article to commemorate the anniversary of the publication, taking stock of some of the events and trends that FMR has covered over the last 25 years.

Highlights from the article:

Boat people
One difference in the world today is the way that 'boat people’ are perceived as compared with when the magazine set up in 1987, he says. Back then the world’s attention was focused on the plight of the Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people and although maritime refugee movements of this scale have not been witnessed since, 'boat people' from Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka still take their chances on the high seas. But whereas the Vietnamese boat people were widely regarded as heroic figures, the political context has changed. He points out that asylum seekers who take to the sea (and even more so the 'people smugglers' who transport them) are now widely regarded as 'cheats and criminals'.

Internally displaced persons
Since the early 1980s, there has been a vigorous campaign to highlight the plight of the world’s internally displaced persons and to ensure that the international community assume greater responsibility for their protection. As indicated by the current crisis in Syria (and as was demonstrated in Sarajevo some 20 years ago), displacement is not the only criterion of vulnerability. And in some situations, those people who have been forced to flee elsewhere may actually be able to find better protection than those who remain trapped in war zones.    

Dr Crisp asks if religious faith is the big new theme in refugee studies, arguing there are signs that it might be. Two years ago, the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford convened a workshop on the issue of 'faith-based humanitarianism in contexts of forced migration', which led to the publication of a special issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies on the theme. UNHCR has contributed to this trend, sponsoring a book on the contribution of Islam to the development of refugee law and, earlier this year, convening an international conference on refugees in the Muslim world.

Local integration
A positive development increasingly indicated in recent research is that many refugees are becoming relatively well integrated in their host countries, Dr Crisp notes. They are finding a niche in the local economy and society into which they have settled, particularly in West Africa. 'This is a very positive trend,' he writes. 'Given that many refugees are unable to return to their country of origin, and in view of the fact that resettlement places are so limited, local integration remains the only viable solution for many refugees.'

Survival migrants
The term 'survival migrant’ is now used in advocacy and expands the narrow definition of refugees drawn by up the UNHCR in 1951. It was coined by Oxford researchers Dr Alexander Betts and Esra Kaytaz to categorise people who, although outside the legal framework for protection, were fleeing because of serious human rights deprivations. Dr Betts first applied the term in academic literature to describe Zimbabwean asylum seekers who were experiencing chronic economic and social deprivation in South Africa.

Until recently, Kenya was almost certainly the country most visited by refugee researchers, he says. But things now seem to be changing, with refugee researchers going in increasing numbers to neighbouring Uganda. This may of course be because the Kenyan Dadaab refugee camp is now generally off-limits to visitors for reasons of security, but could it also be because so much research has already been done in Kenya? Dr Crisp says this raises the question of what feedback such highly-researched communities receive in return.

Central America and Mexico
Protracted refugee situations tend to make us lose sight of the fact that long-term situations of displacement frequently do come to an end, says Dr Crisp. No region is a better example of this than Central America and Mexico, an area that accommodated huge numbers of refugees and internally displaced people in the 1980s. Sadly, however, the region is now confronted with another wave of human displacement, generated not by civil war but by gang, drug and crime-related violence. According to some estimates, around 1.5 million Mexicans have been uprooted by such violence in the last five years.   

Academic literature
Twenty-five years ago you could argue that refugee and forced migration issues were not adequately covered in the academic literature, he says. Over the recent decades, this has changed and in addition to FMR, a variety of different periodicals has emerged. There is now a different problem, he argues: that of quality control. Dr Crisp asks whether there are enough articles with something interesting and original to say in what is now a relatively crowded market-place.