Refugees in Towns: Experiences of Integration

By Jacobsen, Karen | Forced Migration Review, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Refugees in Towns: Experiences of Integration


Jacobsen, Karen, Forced Migration Review


Towns - especially border towns in countries of first asylum - are at the frontline of refugee displacement and are often where refugees settle or spend long periods of time. When refugees move into a town they change the fabric of social, political, cultural and economic relations, which in turn influences the refugees' own experiences. The Refugees in Towns (RIT) project at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, is a new initiative that seeks to deepen understanding of urban refugee integration through highlighting the dual experience of refugees and the towns where they have settled. Academic and policy research tends to focus on the national or global level, seldom bringing a local lens to the story. The RIT project explores integration as it happens in towns, which is an important dimension missing from our understanding both of refugee integration and of urban development.

The RIT project draws on a range of methods to develop case-studies of towns and cities that have received refugees.1 Using qualitative research approaches it focuses on the 'ground-up' experience of host towns and refugee neighbourhoods within large cities. Research is conducted by people who live or work there, and each case-study presents a different angle depending on the perspective and interests of the researcher. The case-studies document the experiences of both refugees and hosts, and the impact an urban refugee population has on local services, on the governance of cities, and on social cohesion. The RIT project's scope is global and case-studies are already underway in North American towns where refugees have been resettled, in transit countries (Mexico and Greece) and countries of first asylum (including South Africa, Lebanon and Turkey).

Academically, the findings from the casestudies will strengthen theory building about refugee integration through documentation and analysis of the ways in which urban refugee and host communities evolve side by side. Practically, the project supports urban policy at the local level by providing guidance and information to community leaders, NGOs and town officials. Our aim is to help shape towns as immigrant- and refugee-friendly urban spaces that take full advantage of the benefits brought by refugees and to identify what practices work well in addressing the challenges of integration.

Why this project now?

In January 2017, the new Trump administration began to try to shift United States (US) refugee policy through introducing travel bans and suspending parts of the refugee programme. Towns across the US responded in different ways, some declaring themselves 'sanctuary cities' and offering other forms of resistance, while others supported Trump's efforts. These political developments at the federal and local levels are bound to affect the integration experience of both newly arrived and longstanding refugees and asylum seekers. Globally, the same political dynamics are at work. In countries of first asylum such as Jordan and Libya, in transit countries such as Greece and Mexico, and in destination countries such as Germany and Sweden, it is towns and cities that are absorbing refugees and migrants. It is crucial that we understand this experience and find ways to support towns where, in many cases, refugees will remain for long periods. …

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