Is ‘forced migration’ an analytically useful concept?


The notion of forced migration is a “loaded” concept resting upon a set of assumptions that determine its strengths and weaknesses. The concept retains, nonetheless, a good degree of usefulness, particularly when those using it are able to recognize its limitations.

In answering how useful ‘forced migration’ is, the text was divided into three sections: one showing how ‘forced migration’ constitutes a hub, focusing research on a particular phenomenon across time and space; secondly, the paradoxes and dilemmas inherent to the term are discussed; and thirdly a suggestion of a number of factors to take into account when using the concept is presented.

It is first and foremost important to ask “why ?”, and “to whom?” is the concept useful. The argument is that the concept remains useful if used in a critical and demanding way.

‘Forced Migration’ – a hub across time, space and the social sciences

In first answering the problem it is important to make clear what is understood as useful, and how is it possible to measure the degree of usefulness of a concept, or if this is possible at all. It is evident that comprehensively measuring such an abstract term is impossible. One can, nonetheless, still theoretically assess its uses and purposes, look at how effectively it has simplified the complex reality it targets and if it has been successful in making it more graspable. In doing so, one can try and assess how its understanding evolves, what have been the policy applications of its operationalization, what have been the assumptions it rests upon and finally map out what are its strengths and weaknesses.

Forced migration is commonly understood as the process affecting those “who flee or are obliged to leave their homes or places of habitual residence because of events threatening their lives or safety” (Martin: 2000 3). Forced migrants are usually divided into different categories according to their specific characteristics that take into consideration the nature of the force causing the forced movement and the geopolitical dimension of the individuals crossing a border. In this sense Development Induced Displaced Persons (DIDPs) move because of reasons that are different in the case of Disaster Displaced Persons (DDPs) while Refugees travel geographically across state borders whilst Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) do not. ‘Forced Migration’ has been working as a collector hub of a multitude of research areas (such as development, migration and conflict studies). It has also been pivotal in linking migration studies with conflict, nationalism and development, proof of this can easily be found in the vast array of websites and research centres bringing distinct disciplines and researchers together under the same unitary problem. Its overarching ability is potentially useful in organizational terms, both to set up research, explore and motivate cross-disciplinary debate and also in designing related international bodies (i.e. UNHCR) that can tackle more effectively the problem as a whole. Some examples are the Forced Migration Studies programme at Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the Forced Migration review magazine and the International Association for the study of forced migration.

The phenomenon of forced migration is a trans-historical occurrence that only recently has been assigned a concept that aims at improving the understanding of why displacement of people occurs. The contemporary conditions of modernity with increasing compression of time and space and a regime of flexible accumulation (Harvey: 1989 286) amidst an international system that is still firmly state-based can be looked upon as some of the reasons for the degree of geographical interconnectedness that brought about the concept. Also because of this, any analysis an historian makes, for example, of the exodus of Moses and the Israelites (more than 4400 years ago) from Egypt will be essentially different from studying forced migrant Somali refugees living today in Kenya. There is nevertheless a notion and idea that unites them across the millennia as well as across space, the notion that a group of people was forced, for motives beyond them, to move somewhere else. A movement that because of its inherent forced nature entails specific consequences and shapes the psyche, needs, behaviour of those actors involved in the flight. The idea has been used as an overarching label for groups with different characteristics and that might belong to different categories (such as IDPs, Refugees, DIDPs and DDPs) but that still retain a substantial number of common characteristics. The more evident these characteristics, the more useful the term will be. Some of these trans-historical characteristics can be, for example, the obligation to move due to a number of different threats and some common psychological traumas of being displaced that are commonly associated with the phenomena (Turton: 2003 6).

Finally, ‘forced migration’ primarily refers to the root causes of migration, distinguishing itself in a binary relation from ‘voluntary migration’ a term that comprises the selection of migrants voluntarily moving for reasons such as economic, studying, tourism and business. The dichotomy it forms with ‘voluntary migration’ constitutes the onus of the debate surrounding the concept. Above all, ‘forced migration’ made more salient the inherent problems of the causal aspects of flight. A focus that is, nevertheless, double-sided as it will hopefully be made apparent in the next section.

The presumptions of Forced Migration

‘Forced migration’ is both a protective and a threatening umbrella for the central subjects of its study – forced migrants. Looking at the semiotics of the expression and at how its meaning is constructed can shed some light into some inherent paradoxes of the expression. These paradoxes affect its utility.

Forced migration seen in absolute terms corresponds to an inexistent abstraction, a situation whereby an individual would not face any kind of choice, firstly in terms of the decision to move and in its timing, secondly in terms of which place to move to and in how to carry out this movement, and thirdly in relation to what occurs after this movement has been carried out. A tendency towards the looking to the concept in absolute terms represents sometimes a problematic victimization of the subjects as is warned by Van Hear (1998: 47). He argues that one should not look at forced migrants simply being victims but that they actually “are active within the circumstances in which they find themselves”. In addition, the idea of ‘forced’ is constantly questioned, manipulated and revised not just by researchers but also by border‑resilient nation-states (particularly in the developed North) that look anxiously at immigration from the developing South. These nation-states try and keep the occasions when a migrant is considered as having been ‘forced’ to migrate to a minimum. In the struggles between labelling certain individuals and groups as refugees (forced) or economic (voluntary) migrants, the latter has been taking more and more precedence with the introduction of new techniques and interpretative categories as well as discouraging and complicated visa application processes for citizens from the developing world. The vast literature on “Fortress Europe” as a region increasingly detached from south-north migration illustrates this, showing that ‘forced migration’ is not an analytical concept that is sole property of academics. The concept actually remains vastly dependent on “the important policy shifts of the world’s ‘dominant powers’” (Macdowell & Van Hear: 2006 12).

The manipulations and interpretation of ‘forced migrant’ in general and some of its categories in particular, such as the ‘refugee’ one, have allowed for an increasing dismissal of forced migrants as either not being the responsibility of the receiving sovereign state (in the case of distant IDPs and DIDPs) or as not eligible according to strict understandings of the small print in an ancient international treaty (1951 Refugee Convention). Forced migration and some of its components, in particular those that provide individuals with a beneficial legal status according to international regimes and norms, have been constantly overly-defined by sovereign states for political motives and have been gradually becoming more exclusivist.

Paradoxically, the label of “forced migration” negates refugees and other forced migrants as entities with agency. The flight of refugees, for instance, is protected by a “special” Refugee regime only existing to temporarily look after extremely fragile individuals that have been stripped of their “ability to intervene and change” things (Giddens: 1984 9). In situations when authorities actually recognize forced migrants as a problem, making absolute powerlessness a pre-requisite for the activation of mechanisms countering forced migration has wide implications. Above all, the assumption and representation you make of those pictured this way will affect the way in which policy-makers will try and carry out the re-placement of forced migrants. For instance, the different choices opted for in “completing” the refugee cycle (Koser & Black: 1999) will deeply affect the sets of relations of forced migrants in their daily lives with other non-forced migrants. Attempts to overcome this have started to come through in academic writings, with authors such as Van Hear (1998 42) opting for the concept of ‘involuntary migration’ instead of ‘forced migration’. This is a direct challenge to the bias and the charged meaning of the expression “forced” and a very blatant critique to its disregard of agency even in rather limiting situations for vulnerable individuals such as is the case of some forced migrants.

When looking at the term’s relation with time, ‘forced migration’ holds the asset of being able to compare similarities in migration movements across time but also presents new problems. There is sometimes an inclination towards a very static, almost primitive idea that “once a refugee, always a refugee”, or that in other more general terms that “once a forced migrant, always a forced migrant”. The fluidity and some changes that these individuals go through over time have been unwelcome and even characterised as out of place and out of role. The example of the Dadaab refugee camp is illustrative as was observed by Cindy Horst (2006). She looks at refugees’ dependency as an induced syndrome whereby refugees supposedly go through a process of “learned helplessness” and passiveness (Horst: 2006 92). The perceptions of UNHCR staff and local citizens are very clear in blowing out of proportion the negative effects and stereotype of refugees in particular and forced migrants in general. By doing so, their discourse disguises and almost excuses some physical insecurities they face together with various institutional weaknesses of the UNHCR (Horst: 2006 81).

A key and crude critique of the concept can also be attributed to its dependence on the key stakeholders in the international community. Meaning that there have been double-standards in the reactions and engagement of policy-makers towards similar situations involving forced migrants. Van Hear and Macdowell (2006 3) point to that in their comprehensive book on forced migration “Catching Fire” when arguing that if you compare, for instance, the cases of East Timor and the situations in Burundi and Sudan it is clear that “the perceptions about a particular conflict influence levels of commitment to a humanitarian response”. The conceptual framework freezing and “snapshoting” situations of which the categories of ‘forced migration’ are a part of can actively contribute to these imbalances. This shows that when actors evaluate humanitarian crisis by using forced migration as one of its assessment components this action is not mechanical. In fact, these evaluations are subject to interpretations and particular political “readings” of the nature and the dimension of the forces that trigger and sustain the crisis.

De-naturalising ‘Forced Migration’

In this sense it is important to look at ‘forced migration’ as a fluid and wide-encompassing phenomena that constantly needs to be assessed, revised and de-naturalised in its semantics. When using the concept, policy-makers should keep in mind that “people sometimes change statuses rapidly, so that an IDP may become a refugee, then a returnee, and then an IDP again” (Van Hear & Macdowell: 2006 12). These changes in statuses of individuals between the different categories of ‘forced migration’ are also extended to the statuses outside the forced migration umbrella to the side of ‘voluntary migration’ and are not always recognized equally by all actors. Someone who is considered a forced migrant by Norway might not be seen as such by Iran.

While considering this, it can be useful to, instead of looking at voluntary and forced migration in a relation of dichotomy, look at them as extremes of a continuum that is flexibly interpreted by a different array of actors. Van Hear (1998: 44) proposes just this. The benefits of this approach go, as it was previously seen, beyond academic discussion of whether the concepts are analytically useful or not. How you understand the phenomena causing migration in general and forced migration in particular and how you map it out has very concrete policy implications. Turton (2003 2) manages in these lines to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of forced migration by, for example, referring to those that were previously understood as simply DIDPs as “forced resettlers”. This aims at flagging groups that are not just forced to exit a certain geographical area due to economic developmental reasons but that are also assigned a specific set of conditions comprising place and socio-economic packages under which they are compelled to relocate. Dissemination and integration of these different nuanced focuses of ‘forced migration’ need to be further debated and operated since they are frequently complementary and capable of providing policy-makers with a clearer and broader picture. A practical example of this is the observation that a good set of legislation and policy fails to acknowledge that there are several strands of “forces” causing forced migration and that these are frequently not self-excluding. The case of women fleeing Iran (Ghorashi: 2003 117) shows how, although some were in direct danger because of political involvement, this threat was never one-dimensional as there were almost always vast gender imbalances present in the background. Studies such as Ghorashi’s can potentially be a means by which to counter the problem of conceptual overstretching where an over-usage of this concept would dilute it into uselessness and lack of analytical knack. Her work, as well as Turton’s (2003), show how it is possible to improve the analytical depth of the study of forced migration while not losing sense of the concept as a hub that successfully comprises the intellectual resources of a multitude of disciplines and policy actors. Anthropology and cross-disciplinarity will remain key to complement reports on forced migration that have sometimes been biased towards macro-level top-down analysis that try to understand multi-layered processes by simply recurring to the sheer potency of numbers, boxed variables and “neatly” labelled groups of people as its been the case with reports coming out of the UNHCR (2006) itself.


‘Forced migration’ has undoubtedly helped bring about a complex and problematic phenomena within the reach of academics but, most importantly, policy-makers. It has been successful in focusing the target of research while widening the scope of possible tools used to analyse it. This represents a crucial analytical victory for the term. Nonetheless, in order to keep doing so, the expression requires constant challenges that stimulate analytical debate over the conceptual implications of this term while keeping in mind its empirical policy implications. Thankfully, there have been some recent moves in academic literature aiming at going beyond the manipulations of the term by policy-makers, particularly, “spinning” by nation-states. These studies have been able to look at the local scale narrative of those involved in forced migration, a trend that should be sustained and expanded. Overall, for ‘forced migration’ to remain useful as a concept, policy-makers must refrain from looking at those framed within its different sub-labels as uniform masses. A refugee in Kenya is different from one in the United States and an IDP in Sudan is essentially different from an IDP in Afghanistan. Differences across time and space need to be accounted for when studying the sets of relations, needs, ambitions and behaviour of forced migrants. Also, the traditional voluntary/forced dichotomy should be replaced by a more dynamic and fluid mapping of the phenomenon as has been suggested by Van Hear (1998).

With this in mind, a profound debate together with a multi-scale analysis can contribute to a de-naturalisation of the concept and make way for it to be challenged, reinvented and readapted. This can effectively equip policy-makers with a concept that better deals with the realities on the ground instead of simply satisfying the policy purposes of the most powerful agents.


Ghorashi, H. 2003 Ways to survive, battles to win: Iranian women exiles in the Netherlands and the US New York: Bova Science Publishers 101-118

Giddens, A. 1984 The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration Los Angeles: University of California Press

Harvey, D. 1989 The conditions of post-modernity Oxford: Blackwell

Horst, C. 2006 “Refugee life in the camps. Providing security or sustaining dependency?” in C. Horst, ed., Transnational nomads. How Somalis cope with refugee life in the Dadaab camps of Kenya. Oxford & New York: Berghahn Books 77-121

Koser, K. & Black, R. 1999 “The end of the refugee cycle?” in Jacobsen, K. (ed.) The Economic Life of Refugees. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books (2-17)

Martin, S. 2000 Forced Migration and the Evolving Humanitarian Regime. Working Paper No. 20, New Issues in Refugee Research. Geneva: UNHCR

Turton, D. 2003 “Refugees and ‘other forced migrants’: Towards a unitary study of forced migration” conference paper presented at a workshop on “Settlement and Resettlement in Ethiopia” organised by the UN Emergency Unit for Ethiopia and Ethiopian Society of Sociologists, Social Workers and Anthropologists and held in Addis Ababa

UNHCR, 2006 The state of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium (Chapter 1 – Current Dynamics of Displacement). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Van Hear, N. 1998 New Diasporas. The mass exodus, dispersal and regrouping of migrant communities London: UCL Press

Van Hear, N.; Macdowell C. 2006 “Introduction” in Van Hear, N.; Macdowell C. (eds.) Catching Fire, Containing forced migration in a volatile world London: Lexington Books