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Transnational Figurations of Displacement: Connectivity and Mobility as Solutions to Protracted Refugee Situations

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - TRAFIG (Transnational Figurations of Displacement: Connectivity and Mobility as Solutions to Protracted Refugee Situations)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2022-06-30

Displacement is supposed to be temporary. Yet around 16 million people worldwide remain in exile for years and years without prospects of return, resettlement, or local integration. These people live under conditions of protracted displacement which include economic precarity, social marginalisation, legal insecurity, and future uncertainty. Policy solutions often fail to recognise displaced people’s actual needs and limit rather than widen their range of opportunities.

But for all the constraints they face, displaced people are not helpless. Many draw from their own resources, primarily their networks of social relations such as families, neighbourhoods, religious and ethnic communities or other solidarity groups. They use mobility to reach these networks and build a better future. However, mobility is often impeded by state policies, legal frameworks, and humanitarian practices, hindering connectivity, and denying displaced people’s needs and priorities.

The TRAFIG project set out to understand how displaced people can bolster their resilience through social connections and mobility. Through comparative research within Africa, Asia, and Europe, we investigated displaced peoples’ experiences and strategies. We sought to advise policymakers and practitioners on how long-term solutions to protracted displacement can be developed. We provided suggestions on how policies, legal frameworks as well as support and integration programs can be improved by factoring in displaced peoples’ social networks and mobility.
After building the conceptual, analytical and methodological foundation of TRAFIG in the first year of the project, the TRAFIG team empirically studied conditions and constellations of protracted displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan, Greece, Italy, and Germany, complemented by smaller case studies in Lebanon, Iran and the Netherlands. We conducted qualitative interviews, a quantitative survey, focus group and stakeholder discussions with more than 3,120 people; ethnographic methods complemented our study.

The project used the concept of ‘translocal figurations of displacement’, which focusses on social constellations in which protractedly displaced people are embedded, and how they evolve over time and across interlinked territories (working paper 1). Our empirical findings are outlined in seven country-specific reports (working papers 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10) and the TRAFIG synthesis report (D7.1). Over 30 peer-reviewed articles, including nine in a special issue in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and book chapters introduce and lay out our work to diverse academic audiences. In turn, the TRAFIG policy handbook, seven policy briefs, 12 practice notes, an online ‘toolkit for practitioners’ and a special section in the Forced Migration Review present our results to policymakers and practitioners. All our publications are available on the TRAFIG website and the public repository ZENODO.

Our research shows that protracted displacement is a product of states’ ignorance, if not a deliberate consequence of policy choices. Ending protracted displacement is therefore possible if states show the political will to jointly tackle all aspects of displaced people’s precarity and marginalisation. We found that refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) largely find protection, shelter, livelihood support, a sense of belonging and opportunities to migrate elsewhere through their social networks. These networks often stretch across localities or even countries, which makes mobility a necessity. Understanding the local, translocal and transnational ties of displaced people upon which they rely for their well-being is the foundation for solving the problem of protracted displacement. Further key takeaways are summarized in the TRAFIG policy handbook and on the TRAFIG poster.
Our project has added value to existing knowledge on protracted displacement and helped to redefine the concept. We assessed key factors (such as gender, legal status, class, local relations) that shape displaced people’s risk of living in limbo. However, we widened the previously narrow and territorially contained debate on protracted displacement by highlighting the decentralised, multi-sited and often cross-border social constellations in displacement. We systematically explored the role of local, translocal and transnational connectivity and mobility in the lives of people affected by protracted displacement and showed new ways of thinking of ‘durable solutions’. TRAFIG results and the alternative perspective we offer can both contribute to developing more humane, coherent, differentiated, and sustainable responses to protracted displacement.

With each publication we wrote and with each of the multiple events (e.g. expert roundtables, conferences, or webinars) we organised or participated in, we aimed to contribute toward one or more key project impacts, namely to 1) find tailored solutions to protracted displacement, 2) strengthen partnerships in host countries, 3) strengthen partnerships between host communities and refugees/IDPs, 4) enhance policy responses to integration or mobility needs, and 5) use the concept of transnational figurations to assess displaced people’s resilience. We targeted different audiences, particularly policy makers, international organisations, civil society, and academia. Besides including displaced people, we reached out to members of host communities and aimed to better understand patterns of integration and interaction between both groups. Our findings were presented and discussed in expert workshops and “multi-stakeholder community consultations”. Based on these feedback loops, we were able to better tailor our findings to local realities.

Through research in the DRC, we also considered the experience of IDPs to allow for a more holistic picture of protracted displacement. We found that IDPs’ coping strategies with displacement offer valuable lessons for helping refugees that can help overcome existing research and policy gaps.

Global developments over the last 3 years illustrate the relevance of TRAFIG’s research and findings:
1) The COVID pandemic illustrated the importance of mobility to maintain transnational lives. Technical innovation to overcome immobility have been investigated and promoted by the TRAFIG project as ways to overcome protracted displacement and marginalisation.
2) The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region (autumn 2020) as well as the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan (summer 2021) demonstrated that constellations of protracted displacement are often highly dynamic and volatile. Many refugees and IDPs must become mobile (again) to cope with violence and insecurity. Pre-existing and newly spun network connections to other regions or countries are essential resources to flee (again).
3) The power of mobility and the possibility to follow networks has been demonstrated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequent displacement of Ukrainians (February 2022). The visa-free regime allowed Ukrainians to move within the EU and pick their destination country. Their choice was often dominated by the presence of networks like family, friends, or perceived economic opportunities. TRAFIG will be a good reference to assess EU policies on temporary protection for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.
10 key takeaways from the TRAFIG project (elaborated in the TRAFIG policy handbook)
Logo of the TRAFIG project