Systems vs Siloed Approaches to Forced Migration

Dr. Rawan Arar, University of Washington

Dr. David Scott FitzGerald, University of California San Diego

Published on: February 19, 2023

Photo: A 2001 postage stamp issued by Tajikistan celebrates the 50th anniversary of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


What explains forced migration? The answers to this question are fragmented across different bodies of academic knowledge. Conflict studies examine the logic of violence that prompts some people to flee, but once refugees have left their places of origin, they fall off the radar screen unless they are implicated in further violence or post-conflict reconstruction. Policy-oriented refugee studies tend to take as their starting point people who have already crossed an international border to seek sanctuary, but these studies often pay little attention to those who wanted but were never able to leave their countries in the first place. International migration studies have highly developed theories of labor migration, but have been slow to integrate insights of economically-driven movement with flight from violence and persecution. In short, understandings of forced migration tend to fall into distinct siloes that hide connections across places of origin, transit, and hosting.

By contrast, the approach we elaborate in The Refugee System: A Sociological Approach (Polity Press 2023) brings together insights from conflict, refugee, and international migration studies. Drawing upon historical and contemporary cases, the systems approach focuses on the connections among stages of displacement in different countries to illuminate what the silos inadvertently conceal. These insights become clearer by following particular people facing violence. A longitudinal case study of one extended Syrian family with members in Syria, Jordan, and Canada, and their contemplation of options in Europe and elsewhere, reveals how household decision-making interacts with policies across the globe. We introduce the new economics of displacement to analyze how refugee families make decisions.

We identify six ways in which systems and siloed approaches differ: historicism, legalism, explanations of displacement, attention to both immobility and mobility, lives beyond durable solutions, and connections among stages of displacement.

The field of refugee studies has been highly focused on policy relevance since its inception. One unintended casualty, however, is that studies seeking to immediately solve contemporary problems tend to be ahistorical. By contrast, a systems approach draws heavily on historical institutionalism to show feedback loops between processes in different parts of the system and path dependency in refugee policies and movements that can last for decades and even centuries.

A related tendency is for studies focused on policy interventions to adopt an exclusively legal definition of refugees that fits the 1951 Refugee Convention, for example. However, using a legal definition alone excludes from analysis comparisons with historical examples of refugees avant la lettre who would fit the modern definition, internally displaced people who would have been refugees but for the fact that they could not cross a border, and people not legally recognized as refugees simply because categorization is a highly politicized exercise. Using a sociological definition of refugees as people fleeing violence avoids these pitfalls. We map continua of coercion and movement using the metaphor of an (im)mobility chessboard to consider relationships across a spectrum of ascribed legal and social categories.

Humanitarian publications often avoid explaining why a particular group of people was displaced, save for generic references to conflict, to avoid naming powerful actors who might retaliate by cutting off funding for humanitarian operations or access to displaced people. A systems approach takes as its starting point what armed actors are trying to accomplish with violence, the unintended consequences of their actions, and the relationships among genocide, expulsion, and flight.

In the study of international migration, refugees are typically considered a subset of international migrants. A systems approach, however, does not take mobility as its starting point. Rather, it examines factors that impede as well as promote flight. It analyzes forced immobility, such as besiegement, detention, concentration camps, and hiding from persecution, as well as the conditions that tend to promote flight, such as previous pathways abroad through labor migration.

The production of knowledge about refugees by humanitarian agencies focuses on three “durable solutions”- local integration in a host society that usually borders the country in conflict; overseas resettlement to a country in the Global North like the United States, Canada, or Australia; or post-conflict return to the country of origin. A systems approach also attends to alternative types of mobility and transfers of goods, money, services, and ideas that fall outside the durable solutions models of refugees’ lives being rebottled into a single “container society.”

Finally, while refugee and migration studies silos typically focus on a single stage of displacement, such as refugee resettlement, a systems approach focuses on the connections among these different “solutions.” For example, we show how resettlement to powerful countries in the Global North is dependent on containment and processing by states in the Global South, integration into the resettlement society begins in camps in the Global South long before refugees set foot in the Global North, and the elusive promise of resettlement is dangled to discipline and control the vast majority of refugees who will never be resettled.

Readers who would like to learn more about The Refugee System may be interested in watching the book launch, reading a review of the book, or perusing an extended explanation of siloed approaches drawing upon cases from the Middle East.

Rawan Arar is Assistant Professor in the Department of Law, Societies, and Justice at the University of Washington. She is co-author with FitzGerald of The Refugee System: A Sociological Approach (Polity Press 2023).


David Scott FitzGerald is Theodore E. Gildred Chair in US-Mexican Relations, Professor of Sociology, and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego.