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Describing Economic Lives

A range of pioneering research, initially mainly qualitative research, identifies the importance of focusing on the economic lives of refugees. The work of Professor Karen Jacobsen was especially seminal in identifying the economic lives of refugees as an important area for academic and policy research.

The Impact of Refugees

Much of the early quantitative research on the economic lives of refugees has focused on measuring the impact of refugees on host societies. It focuses, for example, on the positive or negative impacts on labour markets, crime, and social cohesion.

Repatriation Decision-Making

Repatriation is widely seen as the most viable durable solution for the majority of the world’s refugees. Until recently, however, there has been relatively little quantitative research examining the conditions under which return migration takes place.

Social Cohesion

Under what conditions do refugees and host communities have positive mutual perceptions? How are positive or negative attitudes shaped by interactions or other variables such as economic and cultural impacts? Although there is a significant literature on labour migration and public attitudes, questions relating to refugees and social cohesion have only recently been explored.


Transnational money transfers play in important role in international development, being even greater than foreign direct investment or overseas development aid in some countries. They are also especially important in the lives of refugees and displaced populations, many of whom rely upon remittances sent from relatives abroad as a key income source. 

Refugees’ Migration Choices

What explains refugees’ mobility choices? When do they select between urban and rural contexts, or between particular host countries? Under what conditions do refugees migrate onwards from first countries of asylum? What role does ‘development’ play in this process? 

Urban Livelihoods

More than half of the world’s refugees live in urban areas. And yet, there remains relatively more research on economic life in refugee camps than on the economic lives of refugees in cities. Much of the existing research in this area is qualitative, and there are few publically available datasets relating to urban refugee economies.

IDP Economies

There has been comparatively little research on IDP economies and it represents an important research gap that remains to be addressed.

Critical Approaches

There is a growing literature that critically engages with work on self-reliance, refugee livelihoods, and debates on the ‘humanitarian-development nexus’.

Important Policy Papers

There has been an increase in policy literature relating to refugee economies, and much of it contains original research.

Relevant Theory

Despite a growing body of empirical research, refugee economies remain largely under-theorised. What, if anything, makes the economic lives of refugees distinctive? 


The experiences of forced displacement often affect women and men differently. The existing empirical studies highlight significant changes in gender roles and norms amongst refugees and illustrate the different experiences encountered by male and female refugees in the pursuit of their socio-economic lives.