Academic journal article Journal of Management and Public Policy

Reflections on Refugee Studies and the Study of Refugees: Implications for Policy Analysts

Academic journal article Journal of Management and Public Policy

Reflections on Refugee Studies and the Study of Refugees: Implications for Policy Analysts

Article excerpt


Today refugees are statistically an important issue. The United Nations (UN, 2010) reports that 25.2 million people, an overwhelming majority from the Global South, are displaced: 10.55 million refugees and 14.7 million internally displaced people (IDP). The academic study of this phenomenon known as 'refugee studies' can be conceptualized as a phenomenon in and of itself. Its scholastic history precedes recent refugee migration trends and dates back to the displacement of Europeans during the World Wars. As of 2014, refugee studies is an entrenched and professional academic field of scholarly enquiry in the social sciences.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the development of refugee studies. This paper makes a case for more critical analysis in - and of- refugee studies in order to better protect displaced people and to assist government in creating policies which respect the dignity of individuals. Based on a review of academic literature, first this paper discusses key concepts, labels, and theories in refugee studies and in doing so makes the case that refugees and asylum seekers are qualitatively an important issue. Second it traces the emergence of the field of refugee studies. Following it discusses the dilemma within the study of refugee policy research in regards to our ability to remain critical while maintaining a close relationship with government funding agencies. And finally the conclusion makes a case for studying asylum seekers as a distinct phenomenological group. From a policy perspective this translates into Refugee Claims Adjudicators being more aware of the subjectivity of the refugee experience when assessing claims. Creating a separate space for asylum studies, with institutional support, thus has both positive academic and 'real-world' implications.

Concepts, Labels, and Theories

'Refugee'; 'expellees'; 'exile'; 'displaced person'; 'internally displaced person (IDP)'; 'economic refugees'; 'humanitarian refugee'; 'stateless person'; 'tsunami refugee'; 'development refugee'; 'environmental refugee'; 'government assisted refugee (GAR)' etc. are all terms or 'labels' which carry with them certain assumptions. They all reflect an attempt to capture and articulate a particular reality which is different from the other. This objectivity is useful for legal-institutional purposes and it is an inescapable part of public policy (Zetter 1991: 59), but such objective labeling also risks muting the 'object's' voice and not accurately reflecting the 'truth' of his or her reality. Zetter (2007:176) points out that many times these labels are inadequate in "interpreting the complex structural causes and consequences of flight." Said (2000: 174) aptly noted this point when he wrote in his compelling Reflections on Exile: "at most the literature about exile objectifies anguish and a predicament most people rarely experience first-hand..."

As Zetter (2007: 173) notes, epistemologically we "deploy images to describe the world" and also ontologically to "construct it in convenient images." Based on this ontological position, an interpretive epistemological perspective asserts that we can come close to getting at what is 'truth', but never entirely. And since reality is subjective and is created from social constructions, using an interpretive approach and being conscious of one's own position in the social world when interpreting texts is the most appropriate way to try and come close to getting at what is really real. In studies with forced migrants, a phenomenological methodology is often appropriate as it is through learning the lived experiences of individuals that one can come closest to understanding how they have constructed their reality.

Asylum seekers, those whom have not been granted the privileges associated with citizenship of a state yet are seeking these entitlements, are the most vulnerable population and require special attention. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR, 2011: 3) reports demonstrate that people seeking asylum are a serious policy issue - in 2010 North America received 78,700 asylum applications and European countries received 269,000. …

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