The Economic Life of Refugees

The Economic Life of Refugees

The Economic Life of Refugees

The Economic Life of Refugees


• Contains an overview of refugee experiences stressing the active roles they play in shaping their lives

• Proposes a model for a policy that increases refugees' ability to support themselves

Popular images of refugees depict thousands of traumatized people pouring across borders, congregating in camps where relief agenices try to meet their health and food needs in and outside camps. This book explores the economic life of refugees in protracted situations in a variety of settings: in camps, in urban areas and in third countries in the West.

In The Economic Life of Refugees, Karen Jacobsen stresses that refugees fleeing violence and persecution are economic actors. She explores how some of the innovative ideas influencing migration theory can be applied to the study of refugees, and the ways in which humanitarian programs can support their efforts to pursue their livelihoods.

This book is intended for undergraduates and graduate students, practitioners in the field, libraries, NGOs and anyone seeking to learn more about understanding refugees and the response of organizations trying to help them. Written with elegance and passion, The Economic Life of Refugees is destined to be a classic work of activism as well as social science.


This book is about the thousands of refugees in protracted situations who survive and even thrive after their initial flight across borders: having come through danger, they find opportunity. Common to almost all refugees is destitution resulting from their flight experience, paired with a strong desire to support themselves by pursuing livelihoods. The ways in which they do this, the obstacles they face, and the assistance that comes to them from many sources, are the subject of this book.

People who migrate across borders are usually seen as occupying two different spheres: labor migrants are associated with voluntary migration and economic motives and behavior; refugees are associated with forced migration, traumatized responses, and dependency on relief assistance. Until recently, the social sciences treated the two categories quite separately, but in recent years, this dichotomy has begun to be recast by scholars who seek to show that all migrants engage in a spectrum of behavior and motivation, and that it is often difficult to draw the boundaries clearly between forced and voluntary migration. Forcibly displaced people, such as refugees and internally displaced people, are beginning to be seen as economic actors too. Many of the innovative concepts and ideas influencing migration theory are being applied to the study of livelihood activities of refugees and their economic consequences for host communities, sending countries, and co-nationals in other countries. For example, the study of transnational livelihoods now includes refugees, and—for good or bad—terms like [irregular migrants] and [mobile livelihoods] (a term used to refer to circular migration between two countries) are also applied to refugees.

There is now a burgeoning literature on refugees in protracted situations, addressing issues like urbanization, conflict reduction, repatriation, gender inequity, and violence. But there are relatively few studies that probe deeply into how refugees pursue livelihoods. This book seeks to document and analyze their livelihood experiences by synthesizing recent work, particularly that of researchers such as Lacey Andrews, Shelley Dick, Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Cindy Horst, Loren Landau and Eric Werker. The book draws on their findings and the growing body of livelihoods research in humanitarian situations to gather what we know about the economic behavior and impact of refugee movements from a variety of social science perspectives. The book is intended for [non-experts,] including undergraduate and graduate students taking courses or doing research on forced migration, as well as field practitioners and a general audience interested in refugee issues.

I wish to thank the following people for their support and input during the course of writing this book: Loren Landau, my frequent co-author, who proves that collaboration can be a rewarding experience; my research assistants Sarah Titus and . . .

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