UA-Led Team Analyzes Tipping Points for Refugees

Reporting via Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, some Aleppo residents broadcast during last year's siege and bombardment that they would not leave their Syrian city, even as they were in direct physical danger and had virtually no access to food, water and electricity.

The idea that people would choose to remain — whether they did not want to abandon their homes, or had political reasons, or did not have the means – was confounding to some watching from abroad.

As evidenced by Aleppo and situations in Lebanon, Europe and, most recently, Mozambique and South Sudan, government agencies and relief organizations cannot always predict why civilians choose to stay or flee conflict areas, resulting in sometimes ill-informed policy decisions and interventions, said University of Arizona researchers Alex Braithwaite and Faten Ghosn.

The mass flow of refugees out of conflict zones "represents a substantial humanitarian crisis and poses an increasingly sizable and complex problem for global security," according to Braithwaite and Ghosn, both associate professors of international relations in the UA School of Government and Public Policy.

In response, Braithwaite and Ghosn have launched a new international research project, "Refugee Flows and Instability," which is being supported by a nearly $1.4 million Minerva Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, to study the mass displacement of people from conflicts since 1990.

Notably, the United Nations Refugee Agency reports that more than 65 million people have been forcibly displaced around the world — the highest figure in recorded history. Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Ethiopia are among the countries hosting the greatest number of displaced people.

Specifically, the UA-led team will investigate why people move, the routes they take, where they eventually settle and what impact their movement has on host communities and countries.

In doing so, the team will analyze cross-national data, news coverage and online articles spanning 1990-2015. To capture more granular information about movement and impact, the team also will conduct interviews with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and former Lebanese forced migrants impacted by the Lebanese civil war.

"It's a good lab for us to take what we are seeing at the global level and dig deeper into these cases," said Ghosn, who has a joint appointment in the UA School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies.

About 60 percent of the grant will directly support Braithwaite and Ghosn, who will hire doctoral students to begin research this summer. The remaining funding goes to collaborator Shane Johnson, a crime scientist at University College London, an expert in the application of complexity sciences to the study of social systems.

Braithwaite and Ghosn also hope to develop models to improve the predictive and adaptive nature of policies and interventions designed to support populations of refugees and asylum seekers as conflicts evolve.

"For example, if we increase funding to a particular camp, does that affect subsequent levels of instability or protest? And how do changes in border regulations affect where people flow? The potential to generate a forecasting model is certainly an ambition," Braithwaite said.

Braithwaite and Ghosn attest that decisions to flee are not isolated. While conflict is a key motivator for leaving one's home or country, individuals are negotiating a range of personal, social, economic and political conditions when making their decisions. This greatly complicates the ability to predict tipping points for individual and mass movement.

"People do not understand the role that family ties, language and religion may play in the case of someone choosing to flee," Ghosn said. "Also, many of these people are lawyers, doctors and engineers when they become refugees, but they cannot find work in their profession due to language barriers and/or accreditation issues in their new host countries. So then there is an acceleration of problems."

Ghosn and Braithwaite also argue that where refugees flee largely depends on their social networks and the saturation of refugees in host countries. They also challenge the assumption that the presence of refugees necessarily creates political instability in host communities, as well as the implication that refugees would serve exclusively as the agents of violence.

Rather, they expect that much of the data will reflect criminal activity, violence and anti-immigrant protest movements targeting refugee populations.

"We have found that the mainstream narrative is not very representative of what is really happening," Ghosn said. "We are going back to the basics and investigating the how and the why. These are important questions to understanding these phenomena."


Story written by La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications

Original story here


Published Date: 

02/13/2017 - 11:33am