How Does Someone Who Has Been Forcibly Displaced Make the Decision to Cross an International Border?

Notwithstanding the al-Assad regime’s recent recapture of Aleppo, the crisis in Syria is unlikely to be resolved in the immediate future, and Europe is beginning to collapse under the strain of its inability to devise a tenable solution to the influx of refugees and asylum seekers.

The perceived refugee crisis in the Western world is dominating the global conversation, but relatively little attention is being paid to the 40.8 million internally displaced.

Internally displaced persons, or IDPs, by virtue of remaining in their country of origin, are largely considered to be just one component of any given state’s burden of impoverished, needy, or disenfranchised people.[1] They are thus often excluded from international debate on the management of refugees and the appropriate responses to crises of displacement that reverberate on a transnational scale.

Push Factors

However, the factors and conditions that force the flight are refugees are, in many cases, the same factors and conditions that spur internal displacement. The difference in status—one normative, one descriptive—lies within the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which establishes that a person fleeing their home due to a well-founded fear of persecution must be “outside the country of his nationality” to be recognized as a refugee and accorded the commensurate rights and special protections.[2] The restrictions in the 1951 Convention function to reify distinctions that do not accurately account for the process of forced displacement: Many people who become refugees are first IDPs.[3]

Displacement, particularly when the result of drought, famine, and climate change, is a process that can take place over months and years as families and individuals make strategic decisions to protect themselves and their livelihoods.

In the case of Syria, 6.6 million are displaced within the country, while 4.8 million fled to Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq and 1 million made it to Europe.[4] Although much of Europe’s failure to develop a sustainable solution to the influx of refugees can be attributed to a lack of political will and growing hostility to immigration, visibly demonstrated by the recent surge of nationalist and populist leaders triumphing in national elections, part of the problem does stem from a dearth of information to illuminate why those 6.6 million people chose not to leave their homeland.

To Go or To Stay

If the international community is to build just, sustainable solutions to displacement, it is critical that we gain a more comprehensive understanding of how, and why, people make the difficult and deeply personal decision to seek refugee status, or to remain an internally displaced person.

The research we do have on displacement is largely quantitative, aggregated, or structural, and the factors that most consistently engender widespread displacement are well-established.[5] Structural factors are the most widely recognized, and include armed conflict and generalized violence, natural disaster, climate change, and changing environments, poverty, and widespread human rights abuses including state-sanctioned violence or violence based on ethnic or religious discrimination. Proximate factors include the progressive deterioration (or immediate destruction) of an individual’s ability to make a living, and what are more commonly labeled as “pull factors”—namely, the potential to benefit from economic conditions elsewhere.

As we move through this schema, we approach the individual-specific considerations that might determine the trajectory of individual displacement. Navigating the perilous network of human smugglers to reach Europe is an expensive undertaking, and evidence suggests that families with greater resources or capital may be more likely to leave their homes.

If that capital is not liquid, however, the reverse is true.[6] Families with land or farms are likely to resist leaving for as long as they can. Another consideration is targeted persecution: those who have been singled out and subjected to torture or threats may be more likely to flee or hide.

With that being said, information on the factors that instigated flight alone is not sufficient. Wealth, social and familial networks, opportunity, persecution—not one of these considerations unilaterally or necessarily determines a person’s refugee or IDP status. We need to further investigate how people make the specific decision to cross a border, to seek to change their legal standing under the law.

Notably, there is a robust cannon of literature on economic out-migration addressing similar topics of motivation and decision-making. While this body of work provides an excellent foundation from which to commence, research that is equipped to inform humanitarian interventions and policies must address the specific conditions that generate displacement that qualifies individuals for the normative status of “refugee” under international law.

While anecdotal evidence on individual decision-making during displacement, largely published in journalistic accounts and human rights research publications, is often illuminating and humanizing, it does not rise to the level of systematic, comprehensive research that policy-makers and practitioners need to design interventions.

A Qualitative Approach

Qualitative research offers a critical tool in this endeavor, a powerful complement to data and statistics that can capture the temporal, transient aspects of mass displacement and provide insight into the particular constellation of concerns and factors that develop over time to eventually compel a person to cross a border or to stay within their own country.[7] By deploying social scientists, capable of building relationships with displaced persons, to conduct in-depth interviews in tandem with quantitative data gathering, international organizations and humanitarian actors can significantly improve their capacity to design interventions to protect vulnerable populations and build policy that genuinely addresses peoples’ needs.

Policy decisions intended to address refugee flows must be founded in the testimony, perceptions, and priorities of those who have been displaced. Policies founded on assumptions, designed to serve the interests of receiving states, are destined to be short-lived at best, abject failures at worst.

Consider Operation Mare Nostrum, a coordinated mission to rescue migrants stranded in the Mediterranean that is credited with saving the lives of over 100,000 people. The Operation was aborted in the spring of 2014.[8] European politicians justified this decision by claiming that the operation was encouraging migrants to attempt the journey and that ceasing search and rescue missions would stem the influx of asylum seekers and migrants. In the following months, a record number of people attempted the crossing, and 18 times as many men, women, and children needlessly drowned.[9] The officials responsible for this decision, deaf to the voices of the desperate and the displaced, fatally underestimated the gravity of the threats that had forced people from their homes.

The international community is missing a critical window of opportunity to intervene in displacement and to protect people in need of assistance. In order to develop more effective humanitarian interventions–and win the cooperation of receiving states–international agencies, states, universities, and individual scholars must act.

By learning more about the individual calculus that underpins transnational flight, interventions will be better positioned to support communities to resist displacement where possible, to strive to achieve durable solutions for the internally displaced, and to build the resilience that will ultimately be integral to recovery.

Lily Jacobi graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and is an MA candidate at Columbia University. She concentrates her research on reproductive health and human rights in humanitarian settings, and is currently interning with the Women’s Refugee Commission. 

[1] Ferris, Elizabeth, (2014), “Ten years after humanitarian reform: How have IDPs faired?,” Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, available at
[2] United Nations General Assembly, (28 July 1951), Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189.
[3] The World Bank, (2016), “Forcibly Displaced: Toward a development approach supporting refugees, the internally displaced, and their hosts,” available at
[4] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (2016), “Syrian Emergency,” available at
[5] Pratikshya Bohra-Mishra and Douglas S. Massey, (May 2011), “Individual Decisions to Migrate During Civil Conflict,” Demography 48(2): 401-424.
[6] See supra note 6.
[7] Dawn Chatty, (June 2014), “Anthropology and Forced Migration,” The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, eds. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, and Nando Sigona.
[8] Adam Taylor, (April 20, 2015), “Italy ran an operation that saved thousands of migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. Why did it stop?” The Washington Post, available at
[9] Ibid.

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