Survival migration: refugee or voluntary migrant?

There are few more challenging questions in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies than where and how we draw the line between ‘refugee’ and ‘voluntary migrant’.

As the culmination of several years research by the RSC’s Alexander Betts, Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement was published by Cornell University Press in 2013. Based on extensive research on the situation of Zimbabwean, Congolese and Somali refugees in six host countries in Africa, it examines national and international responses to people who flee because of serious rights deprivations but who nevertheless fall outside the common legal understanding of a ‘refugee’.

The ideas in the book were developed in part through a series of presentations to policy audiences, including talks at the US State Department and the World Bank, as well as at universities around the world. Following the launch of the book, a range of activities were undertaken to widen its impact, including a US book tour with presentations at the American Political Science Association in Chicago, MIT, Columbia, Berkeley and Stanford. In May 2014, the Swiss Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs arranged a government-wide discussion of the book’s main ideas in Bern, at which Professor Betts and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau, spoke. In the same month, the Danish Institute for Human Rights hosted a seminar in Copenhagen.

Many of the core ideas of survival migration have influenced policy discussions. The ideas have been cited by UNHCR, IFRC and IOM, the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and been used by NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières to give language to the plight of migrants fleeing serious levels of socio-economic rights deprivation. Some of the ideas have adapted as they have informed broader debates, influencing and being cited in discussions within the Nansen Initiative on displacement in the context of natural disasters and the emerging debates on the broader umbrella category of ‘crisis migration’.

Alexander Betts
Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, and Director, RSC

Dylan Thomas / UKaid / DFID. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0