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Bridging the GapsLinking Research to Public Debates and Policy Making on Migration and Integration$

Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas, and Joakim Palme

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198834557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198834557.001.0001

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More Research and Fewer Experts

More Research and Fewer Experts

Global Governance and International Migration

(p.222) 14 More Research and Fewer Experts
Bridging the Gaps

Katy Long

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

What role do research and researchers play in reforming the global governance of international migration? Whereas research has played a role in identifying and systematizing the weaknesses within migration’s global governance systems, it has an extremely limited ability to shape actual reform. Effecting reform rather depends on political opportunity. However, the presence of researchers is often used to legitimize the idea of global governance without requiring action, while attendance at high-level events are used by academics to confirm their importance and impact. However, there are opportunities also for independent researchers to be policy-relevant. First, by not letting good academic research be buried underneath dense postmodern phrasing, but rather be articulated so that policy-makers can grasp the content. Second, by using the potential for innovative collaborations with policy-makers; collaborations in which researchers help design and build projects, in which research is not the precursor but the parallel to action.

Keywords:   global governance, researcher, expert, global migration, refugee policies, internal displacement, influence, impact, legitimize


This chapter discusses the role that both research and researchers have played in (re)forming the global governance of international migration, with a special focus on refugees.1 The chapter draws on my experiences while working as an adviser to Peter Sutherland, the former United Nations Special Representative for International Migration, as well as a decade working on both sides of the policy–research gap, as an academic at Oxford, the London School of Economics (LSE), and Edinburgh, and as consultant to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR); the UK Department of International Development (DFID); and the World Bank.

I argue that, while research has played a vital role in identifying and systematizing the weaknesses within migration’s global governance systems, research has an extremely limited ability to shape or effect reform directly, except where it fits with pre-determined political agendas. Researchers can certainly play a key role in conferring legitimacy on processes of migration reform, as global governance ‘experts’. But it is questionable whether this type of engagement has much impact in shaping global agendas, rather than simply legitimizing existing political platforms (see also Chapter 2 in this book).

The rest of this chapter is divided into three parts. In the first section, I consider the motivations for researchers engaging in global governance reform. In the second part, I survey the historical role of research in defining policy. In the third section, I consider some of the problems faced by researchers working in this area today.

(p.223) Motivation

On 20 September 2016, I found myself standing in the lobby of a grand New York hotel. The previous day had seen the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) issue the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, ostensibly the culmination of international efforts since 2015 to address a whole set of crises—dead bodies in the Mediterranean, neo-Nazis in Europe, and refugees trapped in poverty in Jordan and Lebanon (UNGA 2016). Ultimately, the Declaration amounted to little more than a scrap of paper, accompanied by an agreement to return in two years’ time for further attempts at forging a grand bargain (see, e.g., Borger and Kingsley 2016; Frelick 2016).

I was in New York working as an advisor to Sir Peter Sutherland, the then United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for International Migration, readying myself that day to attend the day-long Concordia Summit’s event on how the private sector could help to address these refugee and migrant crises. I knew what was expected of me. The format—roundtables, workshops, coffee breaks for networking—was familiar. The faces—mostly white faces—were familiar, too. And that was the problem: I’d been here before. I counted up airfares and hotel bills: I wondered by what metrics you judge success. I wondered, not for the first time, where the refugees are in all this. I wondered why I was here.

The question of why we do research is a complex one: there is no uniform answer, just as there is no single homogenous ‘researcher’.2 Researchers also make very different decisions about the relationship of their work with policy (for further discussion of these issues, see Bakewell 2008; Van Hear 2011). For some, research is an intellectual pursuit, with researchers driven by the conviction that pure scholarship will bring its own rewards in the fullness of time. For some of these individuals, policy-makers are not so much to be courted as to be avoided. At the other end of the spectrum are researchers whose careers are entirely focused on having immediate impact—making a difference now. These researchers may find employment directly with policy-making institutions. However, researchers can also have an uneasy relationship with institutional stakeholders: some researchers are drawn to forced migration research so as to ‘give voice to the voiceless’, seeing themselves as refugees’ advocates working to holding powerful institutional stakeholders to account (see, e.g., Turton 1996; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. 2014).

These categories are not always clear-cut. Many research careers fall somewhere between these two extremes, and can shift over time: few researchers would insist that their chosen balance between policy and research is the only correct approach. Many researchers with university careers will, at some point, play a role in advising policy-makers, attracted by the idea of ‘making a difference’, the offer of a seat at the table, and the promise of a pay cheque. (p.224) Political views, the realities of think-tank finance, the structure of academic careers and personal ambition may all play a role in shaping the choices researchers make: what to research, where to publish, who to talk to. Similarly, a host of factors—including but not limited to gender, ethnicity, institutional reputation, and geography—play a role in determining who will listen. The power of policy-makers to shape academic decision-making is multifaceted. Policy-makers may simultaneously be the funders, the subject and the audience for research. These tensions and rivalries raise important questions about how researchers choose (or are chosen) to wield influence, and whether research has any significant impact in framing or shaping the global governance of migration.

Evidence-based Policy

Most obviously, research can provide important empirical foundations for evidence-based policy. In a field such as migration and refugee protection, where policy is subject to heavy political filters, particularly at national and global levels, the normative contributions of philosophers and ethicists are also important in helping to shape what these ‘commonly accepted goals’ should look like (e.g. Gibney 2004). The question of who is a ‘migrant’ and who is a ‘refugee’, for instance, is not only fundamental to the architecture of global governance in both areas, but also a question central to refugee research (see, e.g., Zetter 2007; Long 2013).

Yet, the global governance of migration is often bureaucratic. Institutions such as UNHCR or the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are rarely the locus of political decision-making power, especially when—as now—migration and refugee crises are heavily politicized. So, for researchers interested in improving refugee protection or influencing global migration regimes, the potential to effect change—particularly at a global level—seems to rest far more in local action or national debates than in the global processes that have, in 2017–2018, often seemed marginal in both political and humanitarian terms.

Added to this is the difficulty of detecting and measuring something as slippery and intangible as ‘influence’ or ‘impact’. A policy analyst may read a paper or see a presentation; a conversation may be sparked over lunch; a recommendation may appear years later. The positive connection between migration and development, for instance—now mainstream in development circles and made explicit in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (UNGA 2015)—was seeded by research carried out many years before this widespread acceptance (Piper 2017). Another example of how research may eventually influence policy can be seen in the long gestation period between the study of (p.225) diaspora, and its emergence in the 2000s as a ‘hot’ development topic (Van Hear 2014).

Nevertheless, the value placed on knowledge and expertise by those shaping the structures that govern global migration and refugee policies means that research is certainly understood to matter. The next section of this chapter tries to understand how and why, by tracing a brief history of moments when research has directly intersected with policy-making on refugee and displacement issues.

Influence: Historical Case Studies

Since the 1930s, research has been variously used as a substitute for action, a legitimizing force, and—very occasionally—the foundation for meaningful reform of global migration and refugee governance structures.

1930s: Research as a Substitute for Action

By the 1930s, the global governance structures that had been established to try and deal with those uprooted by the Russian revolution and the violent demise of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s were clearly no longer fit for purpose, even as a new European refugee crisis loomed (Skran 1995). Yet, in the absence of politically feasible solutions, researchers were called on to study the problem as policy-makers wrung their hands.

In 1938, Sir John Hope Simpson, a British-Canadian politician and statesman, was charged with compiling a report—first, for the Evian Conference held in July 1938 and, then, for the September meeting of the League of Nations. The result was a comprehensive survey that blamed immigration controls and nationalism for Europe’s new refugee problem: ‘before the war refugee problems were avoided because frontiers were open. There was none of the political, economic, and racial nationalism we have.’ Simpson’s interests were not purely analytical: the aim was to influence discussions by demonstrating that any repatriation of Europe’s Jews to Germany belonged to ‘the realm of political prophecy and aspiration…a programme of action cannot be based on uncontrollable speculation’ (Simpson 1939a, 1939b: 2, 174). Instead, Simpson argued for vastly expanded emigration, including to Palestine.3

Much as academics in search of policy ‘impact’ today, Simpson toured the lecture circuit, talking at venues such as Chatham House. His surveys were published by the Institute of International Affairs and, later, by Oxford University Press. But his writings had little, if any, effect on refugee policy. The Evian Conference failed to secure any serious commitments from states: hope (p.226) for a solution to the flow of refugees from Germany dissolved. One year later, Europe was at war. As a precedent for the influence of research upon the global governance of migration, Simpson’s experience was not a hopeful one.

1950s–1970s: Research as Documentation and Legitimation

If, in the 1930s, research was used as a substitute for action, the career of Louise Holborn sheds further light on the role that ‘inside’ academics can play in legitimizing policy-makers and their institutions. Holborn—a tenured professor at the Connecticut College for Women from 1947 until her retirement in 1972—spent her career working with a number of refugee organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In two ‘voluminous studies’ of UNHCR’s first decades (Elie 2014: 24), she documented their responding to refugee crises and the expansion of the international refugee regime (Holborn et al. 1975). Reading Holborn’s work today, what is striking is both the level of access granted to Holborn by UNHCR and the lack of serious critical analysis. Holborn’s work never seriously questions the policy-makers’ own legal-institutional and Western European-centric framing of ‘refugee crises’.

These two observations are not unconnected. Holborn’s research work conferred legitimacy and authority on the actions of refugee organizations: it aimed to preserve institutional memory, rather than to challenge institutions’ actions. In effect, Holborn’s access was quid pro quo for writing to explain, rather than to challenge, the existing institutional arrangements. So, while Holborn’s more descriptive writings reflect, in part, the time at which she was writing (the post-War consensus era), they also speak to what remains a salient question. Can researchers maintain critical independence while working closely with institutional gatekeepers? And should the aim of research be to record and analyse policy, or actively to lobby for change?

1990s: Research and Policy Reform—Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Expert?

A third model—arguably the most positive in terms of research shaping policy—is the commissioning of research that then guides the development of new policies in politically open space. Perhaps the most obvious case—in terms of refugee protection—is the emergence of ‘Internal Displacement’ as a specific policy category in the 1990s, and the subsequent construction of international architecture to respond to the needs of displaced persons. Such architecture includes a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Internal Displacement, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the 2009 Kampala Convention on Internally Displaced People (IDPs). In this case, there is little doubt that the work of Roberta Cohen and Francis Deng at the (p.227) Brookings Institute played a significant role in helping to place internal displacement so firmly on international agendas in the 1990s.

While internal displacement—the forced movement of people within a state’s borders—is no new phenomenon, it was only with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of more interventionist norms centred on human rights doctrines that internal displacement came to be seen as a salient problem. In 1994, Deng—a South Sudanese politician, diplomat, and scholar—was appointed to the newly-created post of Special Rapporteur. He faced a significant challenge. How should his office promote the framing of ‘Internal Displacement’ as a specific problem, one that required coordinated international action, to a global community tired of refugee crises?

The answer lay in a decade-long partnership with Cohen. In 1996, Deng and Cohen co-founded the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement and, in 1998, co-authored the first major study of internal displacement, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement, as well as co-editing a second volume of case studies (Cohen and Deng 1998a, 1998b). The book combined detailed research mapping of the phenomenon of internal displacement alongside the development of concrete policy recommendations, including the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement that Deng submitted to the Human Rights Commission in 1998, and which formed the basis for the Kampala Convention, which was adopted on 22 October 2009.

Scholarship has thus played an important role in shaping international responses to internal displacement, first, by defining and framing the problem of IDPs and, then, by conferring authority and a platform for human rights advocacy. But what factors created the space for such influence? First, while Deng and Cohen produced high-quality research into internal displacement, they were not career researchers but, rather, a diplomat and a policy-maker and political advisor. This meant that the two understood the complex negotiations required to effect policy change and were well-placed to use their research as a tool for advocacy. Second, the fact that the Brookings Institute is a think tank, and not a university, reinforced this emphasis on producing ‘policy relevant research’. Deng and Cohen’s mission was explicitly to help create a new global governance framework to address internal displacement.

Third, the particular contours of legal scholarship also helped to cement this relationship between IDP advocacy and academia, especially during the tenure of Deng’s successor Walter Kalin (2004–2010). Law is understood to be less a theoretical study than a profession and, as a result, noted refugee and human rights lawyers regularly cross between academia and practice, helping to foster communication between ‘researchers’ and ‘policy-makers’. Alice Edwards, Jean-Francois Durieux, and Volker Turk, for example, are among those who have both published widely in an academic context, taught at respected universities, and held senior positions at UNHCR.4

(p.228) Perhaps most important, however, was the political context within which Deng and Cohen’s research-based advocacy occurred. The end of the Cold War offered new opportunities to rethink displacement alongside the development of new doctrines of humanitarian intervention and ‘the responsibility to protect’. NGOs and international agencies—also recognizing that the profound political shift around displacement was likely to influence their own work—were also open to developing new labels and framing, helping to facilitate a humanitarian ‘pivot’. Research processes certainly shaped the IDP dialogue and directly influenced the resulting global governance framework. But research did not initiate the conversation.

Research as Advocacy: Demanding Change from Outside

This very brief historical survey shows clearly that there is a risk research commissioned or co-opted in the policy spaces opened by states and international organizations may lack independence. As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al. (2014: 16)remind us, ‘the right conclusions are often those the powerful least want to hear’. Many researchers in this field are drawn into their work by a desire to represent marginalized migrants and refugees, and to challenge the status quo, which they see as excessively deferential to state interests. So, can research also be harnessed for more radical ends, to change the refugee protection system from the outside?

There is a rich tradition of the academic advocate as righteous outsider. The figure of Barbara Harrell-Bond looms large over any history of refugee studies, not least because of her work in establishing the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. However, she is also noted—particularly in policy circles—for her virulent critiques of UNHCR and the international community’s institutional failure to protect refugees adequately.

In 1986, Harrell-Bond’s seminal study Imposing Aid, a critique of humanitarian failings in refugee camps, established the foundations for a wider body of research in this area and inspired a whole generation of researchers (Harrell-Bond 1986). Over thirty years, this work has cumulatively contributed to shifting international institutional perspectives on the use of refugee camps, as evidenced in the publication of UNHCR’s 2014 paper UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to Camps (UNHCR 2014). More broadly, Harrell-Bond’s work belongs to a canon of refugee and migration research that has sought to give refugees and other migrants a voice—often in opposition to the interests controlling the process of global governance reform: Western states and global capital. Today, it is rare for conferences or workshops not to include, at some point, mention of the importance of inclusion of refugees and migrants in framing their own lives. This critique has certainly permeated the consciousness of those at the conference table. Care should be taken not to stretch this (p.229) point too far: research has not so much changed who is sitting at the conference table, as altered the discourse around who should be at the table. Nevertheless, Harrell-Bond’s work is an important reminder that influencing policy-makers to change direction usually involves debate and opposition, rather than an easy welcome.

It is also important to consider how academic research and intervention can also cause things not to happen. Researchers as advocate-critics have often spoken out against proposed policy initiatives or perceived trends—for instance, shifts in the language around ‘voluntary repatriation’ in the mid-1990s that attempted to legitimize practices that amounted to refoulement (the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution) (Long 2013). In cases such as this, evidence-based advocacy can act either as a check against the erosion of protection or as controversial reform. The work of organizations such as Human Rights Watch (exemplified for many years by noted migrant advocate and scholar Bill Frelick), has played an important role in recording the consequences of the failure of global governance structures—from the rights of labour migrants in the Gulf to refugees crossing the Mediterranean—and in shaping responses to such abuse. While the influence of such critics is often intangible, their role in calling out government intransigence—Amnesty International called the 2016 New York summit an ‘abject failure’—is important, and their authority to do so rests in large part on fieldwork and research (Amnesty International 2016).

Research and Policy Today: No Solution in Sight?

Research has been extraordinarily successful in documenting the institutional failures of global migration policy. Today, in 2018, it is acknowledged by virtually all researchers (and nearly all policy-makers) that today’s global refugee and migrant protection system is dysfunctional. There are too many refugees living for too long in overcrowded camps or stuck in overwhelmed asylum systems, with no solution to their exile in sight, as too many countries seek to evade admitting or caring for refugees. It is equally evident that too many poor migrants are not refugees, that too many poor migrants have no legal means to move in search of work and that too many poor migrants—whether they fit the definition of refugee or not—die.

Yet, research has been less successful when it comes to developing workable solutions to such failure. Why? Some researchers view this as a step beyond their remit, offering analysis that is intended to explain and not to solve. Others point to larger structural causes of refugee and migrant flows. Many researchers working on refugee and migration issues see ‘the refugee problem’ (p.230) as inevitable in a world of nation-states (see, e.g., Haddad 2008), and policy-makers as essentially compromised, with neither the power nor the will to do more than make incremental and marginal progress.

The result is that the politics of national interest have driven most recent discussions on global governance reform, often underpinned by the assumption—not shared by all researchers—that migration can be stopped. The use of what Alexander Betts identified as ‘linkages’ between North–South interests has produced a number of agreements focused on the control and containment of migration (see Betts 2008). The EU’s offshore processing and detention facilities in West Africa, for example, have fundamentally shifted the notions of asylum and return, central to refugee and forced migrant protection. Inter-European cooperation through the expansion of FRONTEX provides another example of how the supra-national management of migration is being reformed and securitized. The Australia–Malaysia deal and the EU–Turkey deal are examples of bilateral agreements that have significant global implications for how asylum is understood and practised.

These reforms have found little support among the broad refugee and migration research community, who have, instead, focused on critiquing both the moral and operational failings of such policies. This is partly political: researchers in this field, especially at the global level, are overwhelmingly concerned by the humanitarian consequences of such decisions. But it is also because such policy changes have been driven less by evidence-based research than by political calculation. For researchers seeking to influence policy outcomes, since the mid-2000s, the locus of migration power has continually shifted further away from international agencies towards national governments playing to domestic audiences. The rise of nationalist politics across the West means that states’ interests are collectively aligned—at least temporarily—in ensuring that changes to global migration governance mechanisms remain limited.

Technical Reform

Without the political will to effect more broad-based change, global governance reform has become increasingly technical and bureaucratic in nature. One example of such reform is the admission of the IOM to the United Nations (UN) as a ‘related agency’ in September 2016 (IOM 2016).

Prior to 2016, the IOM was already a ‘permanent observer’ at the UN General Assembly, and IOM staff were already working alongside UN staff in many humanitarian crises. Yet, there was strong interest in promoting the IOM’s admission to the UN from key political players and an equally strong investment of political and reputational capital from those—such as IOM Director General Bill Swing—who made the decision to support the IOM’s (p.231) admission. Bringing the IOM into the UN was viewed as a means of achieving visible ‘action’ in the face of a migration crisis with which the UN had evidently struggled.

Researchers have often been among the IOM’s most virulent critics—citing its lack of a norm-based mandate, its chequerboard portfolio of projects and its willingness to bend flexibly to meet states’ ‘migration management’ needs. But research was largely irrelevant in discussions leading up to the IOM’s September 2016 admission. At several workshops during 2015 and 2106, in both New York and London, key proponents of the IOM joining the UN struggled to articulate a clear sense of why such a change mattered, beyond largely bureaucratic and technical questions of coordination, capacity, and support. Hours were spent discussing the difference between a ‘specialized’ and a ‘related’ UN Agency, with few clear articulations of either the difference between these two terms, or why it mattered. As one senior advisor remarked in frustration in the summer of 2016, ‘OK, so IOM is joining the UN. Why should anyone care? Why do I care?’ To date, large parts of both the activist and academic communities seem to have largely greeted the IOM’s new UN status with a collective shrug of their shoulders.

Sitting at the Table: Research as Echo

Nevertheless, despite deep flaws in the existing global governance system, and considerable obstacles standing in the way of substantive reform, researchers are still viewed as integral to the process of reforming migration and refugee protection. The Sutherland Report, for instance—published by the UN at the end of Sutherland’s decade-long contribution as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for International Migration—lists at least two dozen academic experts who were consulted during a two-year drafting process (UNGA 2017). The New York Declaration explicitly recognizes ‘academic institutions’ as ‘relevant stakeholders’ in the inter-governmental conference (UNGA 2016). So, even if political decisions drive states’ migration policies and, consequently, international frameworks for responding to crises, scientific knowledge is still recognized to be the more desirable basis for action—a marker of reputation and authenticity.

This is important: as previously noted, influence is often intangible and diffuse. Yet, there is also a clear risk that those invited to the table are those whose conclusions echo what key stakeholders want to hear: the ‘experts’ who are most adept at adapting their work for the audiences’ sensibilities, rather than those best placed to offer academic critique.

The recent foray of Sir Paul Collier into migration policy provides one example of this. An Oxford development economist with a considerable public profile, Collier’s first book on migration, Exodus, attracted enormous (p.232) attention in the UK, but was criticized by many migration experts for its questionable theoretical assumptions (Collier 2013; Clemens and Sandfur 2014). In March 2017, Collier’s second work on migration, co-authored by fellow Oxford Professor Alexander Betts, presented an excoriating critique of UNHCR. Instead, it offered an alternative, work-centred model for protection, focused on the promotion of special economic zones as a solution for Syrian refugees in Jordan (Betts and Collier 2017).

Betts and Collier are high-profile academics: the Amazon page for Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System notes endorsements by International Rescue Committee President David Miliband and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The book received largely positive reviews from a number of commentators and journalists (see, e.g., Crabtree 2017; Van Tulleken 2017). Yet, these reviews in many ways illustrate the gap between the world of policy and the world of research, with refugee and migration scholars far more negative in their verdicts, labelling the book a poorly researched apologia for containment policies, and heavily criticizing its thin fieldwork, research gaps, and empirical errors (see Crawley 2017; Munro 2017; Yaghmaian 2017).

In a sense, this debate epitomizes the problematic relationship between academic research and policy. In Refuge, Betts and Collier seek to present themselves as challenging the comfortable orthodoxies of refugee protection that no longer work. Theirs, they argue, is the role that scholarship should play in shaping policy: testing inconvenient truths, presenting new ideas, even if these do not fit well with the existing humanitarian consensus.

Certainly, Betts’ and Collier’s work achieves this, and should not be criticized by academics just because it rejects some of the political orthodoxies around which migration scholars have coalesced. Yet, the real problem with Refuge—as identified by its critics—is not the nature of its conclusions but, rather, the quality of its research, particularly given the limited impact of special economic zones on the ground in Jordan (an area of which neither of the authors have regional expertise but whose refugee crisis forms the lynchpin of Refuge’s arguments).

Refuge is therefore a good lesson in how, when well-connected researchers become the advocates for policy (particularly when that policy is conveniently close to the interests of governments), the substance of scholarly work may be less important than the authors’ ability to promote it. The capacity of Betts and Collier—both white, male, Oxbridge professors, and British citizens—to be physically present at conferences and to build the social networks that facilitate access is considerably greater than those who have to grapple personally with visa regimes, limited university funding, or difficult geography.

This underlines another problem. The success of Refuge reflects the fact that researchers who find a seat at the global table are disproportionately likely to be those whose views echo and reinforce the preformed views of (p.233) policy-makers—in part, because they are drawn from a similar cultural elite. This preferential access to power and influence is not simply a matter of explicit political affiliation. Instead, it reflects much wider filtering and selection processes that act to limit the expression of dissent within fixed political parameters, in line with the ‘propaganda model’ developed by Herman and Chomsky (1988).

The lack of diversity among policy-makers, or the researchers they listen to, is hardly an issue restricted to the world of refugees and migration. However, it does have particular resonance given the acute inequalities of power that often characterize refugee crises. If refugees’ voices are only heard when they are filtered not just through researchers’ words, but through the words of privileged researchers selected by policy gatekeepers in the first place, then it can be of little surprise that the reforms proposed in these settings often, even when framed as ‘radical’, would, in fact, largely maintain intact existing structures of global power.5

Inaction, Influence, Integrity

How, then, should researchers seek to influence much-needed reform of global migration governance? Should they simply retreat to the libraries in the face of political manoeuvring and a 24-hour news cycle? The charge of inaction is one that all researchers working on refugee crises have grappled with. Are theoretical papers a sufficient response to urgent human misery? Contributing to policy debates can help to provide a sense of relevance: over years, they may even help change the debate.

But policy work can feed not only relevance, but also self-importance. Conference panels and workshops provide the necessary smoke and mirrors to appear as if you are in ‘the room where it happens’. The trappings of self-importance are seductive; they also genuinely matter for ambitious academics, whose careers are increasingly framed by grant applications and promotion committees who count such things as markers of impact. All this ultimately turns on a fundamental question. What does influence mean? Is influence a seat at the table, playing by rules pre-determined by powerful stakeholders? Is it an op-ed in The New York Times? A spot as a talking head on CNN?

In a world in which states’ migration policies are shaped by populist political culture, a world whose constituents ‘have had enough of experts’, immediate influence may well depend upon a newspaper column or interview, rather than in-depth, high-quality, ethically-sensitive research. This is at best a loss and at worst dangerous, both for the integrity of academic research and the likely success of any reform of global governance machinery. Deng and Cohen’s Masses in Flight was a two-volume 2,000-page study. In contrast, Betts (p.234) and Collier’s Refuge—a work specifically aimed at promoting a particular policy prescription—is a slim volume of 160 pages.

The ‘dual imperative’ that drives refugee research—the need to contribute to ameliorating human misery, as well as scholarship—has long been the subject of interrogation, with Jacobsen and Landau (2003) among those who have warned against sacrificing methodology in the pursuit of conviction. I am accustomed to telling my students each year that passion is not enough; that the best advocates for refugees are those whose research stands up to scrutiny by opponents. We too rarely acknowledge that much of the research held up by policy-makers is often equally flimsy, even if it is more palatable to existing power brokers.

Conclusion: More Research, Fewer Experts

In 2018, the question of how ‘expertise’ permeates policy and politics has become ever more urgent. Yet, it seems clear to me that research matters more than ever, precisely because it offers no quick fixes.

On that September morning in 2016, I did not doubt the value of research to refugee or migrant protection. I can think of dozens of studies—from ethnographic accounts of life in Somali refugee camps to quantitative analysis of the impact of migration on wages in destination countries—that make fundamental contributions to our understanding of the way migration shapes our world and how we respond to it. We need to understand more about the economics of migration, the power structures that shape it, the causes and consequences of the policies—political and humanitarian—that have been adopted to try and contain, constrain, and cope with the movement of people, especially the poor and the persecuted.

Research can be policy-relevant without being policy-driven: independence is a virtue that does not necessarily consign scholarship to obscurity. But too much good academic research is buried underneath dense postmodern phrasing, disseminated in terms that make no sense beyond the seminar room. This is not to say that research must be distilled into bullet points in order to be relevant but, rather, it is to acknowledge that there is too often a communication gap that allows policy-makers to set the narrative around what counts as ‘important’ research.

There is also a tendency among academics to make good critics but poor innovators—in part, because it is always easier to comment on others’ failures than risk your own. The work by Betts and Colliers—however flawed—does underline the potential for more innovative collaborations between researchers and policy-makers; collaborations in which researchers help design and build projects, a sort of ‘Silicon Valley’ model in which research (p.235) is not the precursor but the parallel to action. It should be remembered, however, that 80 per cent of technology start-ups fail. For researchers to become innovators, a major cultural shift will be required—among researchers, policy-makers, and the systems that review them—to allow room for failure.

I left New York in 2016 certain of very little, but certain that the improvement of the lives of millions of migrants and billions of citizens will not be achieved with polite round-tables and incremental pen-pushing. Researchers undoubtedly have a critical role to play in global governance reform, by analysing and proposing radical change. But, if the world’s migrants and refugees need more researchers, they also need fewer ‘experts’. I am currently trying to bend my own career to fit this observation: it remains a work in progress.


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(1.) While the examples discussed in this chapter primarily relate to the governance of refugee and forced migration flows, the issues discussed are also relevant to other forms of migration, including labour migration.

(2.) For the purposes of this chapter, research is defined as a process of systematic inquiry resulting in the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way. Researchers—those who carry out such inquiry—can work in purely academic university settings, but may also carry out their work in more policy oriented think tanks and institutional settings, or as independent consultants.

(3.) This was notable because, in 1930, Simpson had previously headed up a British enquiry into immigration, land settlement, and development in Palestine, and had recommended that limits be placed upon Jewish immigration.

(4.) For many years, Jeff Crisp similarly linked the non-legal academic and policy worlds as Head of Evaluation and Policy at UNHCR.

(5.) It should be emphasized that privilege is, of course, structural. However, this means that those of us who wish to pursue a social justice agenda, but who benefit personally from the existence of such structures (and, as a wealthy, white, Western citizen, I certainly include myself in this group) have a responsibility to acknowledge explicitly the ways in which we are privileged and, therefore, more easily able to enter other privileged spaces.