MSc in Refugee & Forced Migration Studies

This nine-month master’s degree places forced migration in an academic framework, preparing you for doctoral study or for work relevant to human rights, refugees, and migration. It offers an intellectually demanding, interdisciplinary route to understanding forced migration in contexts of conflict, repression, natural disasters, environmental change and development policy-making.

The course aims to offer you an understanding of the complex and varied nature of forced migration and refugee populations, of their centrality to global, regional and national processes of political, social and economic change, and of the needs and aspirations of forcibly displaced people themselves. It also helps students develop a broad understanding of academic research related to forced migration and refugees, as well as critical thinking and sound evaluative tools.

You will gain the ability to plan, organise and carry out research into aspects of forced migration and refugee studies and the skills necessary to convey theoretical knowledge of forced migration to a variety of different audiences.

Teaching takes place in small classes of anything from 7 to 25 students, to encourage active participation and to enable students to learn from each other. Teaching styles vary and include lectures, workshops, seminars and student presentations.

The Course Director for 2018/19 is Professor Tom Scott-Smith.


In the first and second terms you will follow core courses which introduce the subject of forced migration from a range of perspectives, including anthropological, political and legal. There is also a two-term course dedicated to research methods relevant to the study of forced migration.

In the second term, you will also choose two options courses from a list which changes from year to year.

In the third term, you will write a 10,000- to 15,000-word thesis. This is typically a desk-based study, since there is little time to undertake individual fieldwork within the nine months of the course. Although you may attend other options courses, you will only be examined on the core courses, your two chosen option courses and the thesis.

Core Courses

The following core courses will run in the academic year 2018-19.

The Anthropology of Forced Migration

Professor Tom Scott-Smith

This course explores the lived experiences of refugees and forced migrants, covering the anthropological literature on displacement, encampment, resettlement and asylum. It looks at how refugee identity is formed, at notions of home and belonging, and it examines how forced migrants interact with aid agencies, governments and the UNHCR.

It is often said that displacement is a process, and this course primarily looks at the human experience of this process, dividing it into stages. Not all forced migrants will experience all of these stages, however, and at certain points in the course we will shift our attention from the lived experience of forced migrants to study in detail the institutions and systems they encounter. Moreover, the aim of this course is not purely to examine the anthropology of refugees, but to discuss the state of contemporary anthropology more generally. It includes the anthropology of suffering, states, humanitarianism, camps, and international organizations. It aims to give a broad overview of contemporary anthropological concerns, an introduction to some particularly impressive ethnographies, and a chance to study in detail how anthropological thinking can contribute to the study of forced migration.

Each week of this Michaelmas term course will be taught through a close reading of a core text: an ethnographic monograph that has been chosen for its originality and scholarly importance. Seminars each week will include the background and context to the text, an overview of related theory and related literature, and then a detailed discussion of the central reading in relation to a few anthropological debates.

International Human Rights and Refugee Law I

Dr Lilian Tsourdi

This course examines the law on forced migration and refugee protection, mainly under international refugee law and international human rights law. At the outset of the course, we will consider the foundations of public international law and international human rights law in turn, in particular as they structure approaches to refugees and migrants generally. Diverse regional and national examples will be referred to repeatedly throughout the course, in particular the refugee policy of the European Union.

This course will be structured around three parts, namely (1) a primer on public international law and international human rights law; (2) the refugee under the Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951; and (3) sources of subsidiary protection and (4) protection of internally-displaced persons.   The course will provide a foundation for the advanced law option in Hilary Term.

The Politics of Forced Migration

Professor Matthew Gibney

The course aims to introduce students to the key political questions raised by forced migration as a phenomenon that impacts upon those forced to move, the states from which they emanate, and the states which host them, and the global order more generally. The politics of forced migration has resulted in voluminous academic literature in recent decades.  The course will help students navigate and critically assess the major issues, insights and debates considered therein.

This Michaelmas term course is organised around eight different questions which will inform the lecture, reading and discussion for each week, that together give students a rounded view on the key political issues raised by forced migration and how scholars have sought to address them.

Movement and Morality

Professor Matthew Gibney

Human movement across borders raises complex and unavoidable moral questions. States, humanitarian organisations, and individuals often justify their various responses to immigration and refugee movements on moral grounds. It is often claimed, for example, that states have a moral obligation to admit refugees or that controlling immigration is a rightful prerogative of any national community.

This course aims to explore a range of contemporary moral issues raised by border control. Drawing on a number of case studies, the course will consider questions such as whether people should have the right to move freely between states; whether there should be a market in asylum for refugees; what rights illegal migrants should have; and, on what basis states should distribute citizenship.

The answers to these questions (and others that will be considered) are highly contested in practice and in academic literature. The course will map the contours of these lively and important debates and identify the positions that are found to be the strongest.

Research Methods I and II

Professor Tom Scott-Smith

This course in research methods is presented over two terms and has been designed in conjunction with the ESRC guidelines on the provisions of research training for postgraduate research students in the social sciences. In Michaelmas Term the programme will focus on data collection and research design, with eight lectures followed by eight interactive seminars. The course will cover everything from conceptual issues such as epistemology and the use of theoretical frameworks, to more practical concerns, such as literature reviews, research questions, and concerns of bias, representativeness, and sampling.

Hilary Term will cover methods of data analysis, including both qualitative and quantitative techniques. It will include detailed training on how to read, analyse, and use statistics, as well as how to use tools of qualitative analysis. Students will prepare for a final assessed exercise, which examines their ability to plan a research project, and analyse research findings.


Below is a list of indicative options that change from year to year.

Coercive Landscapes

Dr Ali Ali

This course will ask students to directly engage with ideas about the meaning and application of coercion, and the ways in which they can be applied to explain the processes of displacement and forced migration. We will think through different structural circumstances that coerce populations into migration decisions, and conversely the pressures that immobilise populations which desire migration. How and through what processes are different groups coerced into migration? How can coercive pressures affect social groups in different ways, depe4nding on factors such as class and gender? Throughout, we will consider human agency even in the most constrained of circumstances.

The course begins with a review of different notions of coercion before examining various systemic formations that are coercive. Among those we will consider are slavery, neoliberalism, conflict-systems, famine, and the migrant policing and detention industry. The relationship of these systems to forced migration will be analysed as well as the strategies that are implemented to evade or to counter them, including through the use of smugglers. By also asking which actors benefit from these political economies of insecurity, and understanding their functions, we can think about what perpetuates the recurrent violence and forced migrations associated with them.

Dispossession and Displacement in the Modern Middle East

Professor Dawn Chatty

Dispossession and forced migration in the contemporary Middle East is often regarded as synonymous with the Palestinian population. At a stretch of the imagination, it might also take in the Kurdish problem. This course, however, situates both the Palestinian and Kurdish migrations of the twentieth century into the wider and pervasive involuntary movement of populations which has indelibly marked the region throughout the last 100 years. It firmly places the dispossession of peoples in the Middle East as part of the policy of empire, carried further by the colonial and neo-colonial encounter. The aim of this course is to give students an understanding of the way in which dispossession, displacement and social cohesion (integration without assimilation) has come to be a defining feature of life in the 21st-century Middle East, and to illustrate the individual experiences and ethnographic context of the dispossessed community, as a step in understanding the coping strategies and mechanisms of these diverse groups. The course also aims to develop an understanding of the context of such dispossession, statelessness and forced migration, as well as the social, political and environmental price which is paid regionally and globally.

UNHCR and World Politics

Professor Gil Loescher

The political history of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offers a unique perspective of a major UN agency operating in a highly politicized role caught between a mandate that makes it responsible to governments and dependent on international donors while trying to protect and assist refugees. Although UNHCR was established to ensure protection for refugees and to find solutions to their plight, these objectives are frequently frustrated by political constraints. The course will focus on the historical evolution of UNHCR over the past six decades, its role as an international actor in world politics, and how its activities contributed to and were shaped by Cold Wartensions, decolonization,  development, post-ColdWar changes, the War on Terror and globalization. It will also discuss the agency’s functions, culture and relations with other organizations in the international system, its institutional strengths and weaknesses and some of the key policy challenges the Office will face in the years ahead. The course aims is to provide students with a greater understanding of some of the major tensions and constraints that affect the international refugee protection regime.

History and Politics of Humanitarian Aid

Professor Tom Scott-Smith

This course examines humanitarian action from its origins to the present day, considering how humanitarianism has been defined, how humanitarian agencies operate, and assessing some of the consequences of humanitarian aid. By drawing on detailed case studies, the unit aims to give students an appreciation of humanitarianism’s core political and ethical dilemmas, and build awareness of the politics surrounding five of the largest humanitarian interventions from the past 50 years.

The first four weeks of the course examine some historical background. After exploring definitional issues, we look at the emergence of humanitarian aid in the mid-19th century, and then study the origins of the Red Cross movement and the first large-scale interventions after the First World War. Next, we examine the great revolution in humanitarian action in the early 1970s, when the French organisation Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) was founded in a ‘split’ from the Red Cross, based on criticisms that arose during the Biafran conflict. The next four weeks of the course look at contemporary political issues, and some of the moral dilemmas of humanitarian aid. This starts with an examination of how humanitarianism was professionalised in the late 1970s, using MSF and the Cambodia crisis of the late 1970s as a case study. It continues by looking at humanitarianism’s relationship with the media, looking at Ethiopia and Bob Geldof’s Band Aid in the 1980s. We then look at the huge crisis of confidence that hit humanitarianism in the 1990s, particularly after the Rwandan genocide and the undermining of the principle of humanitarian neutrality. Finally, we look at the militarisation of humanitarian aid, with particular attention to the Kosovan war in 1999.

International Human Rights and Refugee Law II – Current Issues in International Protection

Dr Lilian Tsourdi

This course examines a number of recent developments in international protection, including legislation, case law, and practice. The aim is to put the specific development in its context, providing not only an update but also an opportunity to reflect on the direction the law is taking and whether any overall trends can be identified. The course critically analyses a number of refugee rights and their violations, considering the applicable provisions in human rights and refugee law. It also examines legal questions around exclusion from refugee status, cessation of refugee status, repatriation, and resettlement. It contemplates the legality, under international refugee and human rights law, of efforts to externalise refugee protection. It assesses the adequacy of responses, at global and regional level, to the challenge of responsibility-sharing. Finally, the course delves into the administrative governance of the EU asylum policy, analysing the role of EU agencies in tackling the implementation gap in EU asylum legislation.

The RSC's emphasis on the need to produce scholarship that is both theoretically grounded as well as likely to have a real world impact has had a profound influence on the way that I teach.

Kate Ogg, MSc in Refugee & Forced Migration Studies 2011-12, now Lecturer, Australian National University

Graduates of the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies have gone on to doctoral degrees, law school, and work relevant to human rights, refugees, and migration. Graduates of the course are now employed in organisations such as the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration, UNDP, Save the Children, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Brookings and MacArthur Foundations, as well as national governments and universities around the world.

The course offers support for careers development to current students, including informal careers advice sessions, careers workshops and facilitating internships at key organisations, and to alumni, by disseminating information about employment prospects and maintaining an online network.

Find out more about what some recent graduates of the course are doing now.


Photo: UNHCR / A Duclos

Please refer to the course webpage on the University's Graduate Admissions pages for full information on selection criteria, application deadlines and English language requirements. Also see our How to Apply page.

Enquiries about the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies should be addressed to the Graduate Student Administrator,