first asylum refugees

How Can Better Understanding of the Decisions Refugees Make Improve Protection?


Matthew Scott

Team Leader, People on the Move

We recently convened a workshop on refugee decision-making in first countries of asylum in Istanbul with leading academics and researchers.

The concept of a first country of asylum is in itself problematic, as it suggests a degree of safety, including protection from refoulement, that may in fact not be guaranteed. The vast majority of the world’s refugees are in such ‘first countries of asylum’ as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where refugees may find some degree of safety in comparison with countries such as Afghanistan or Syria, even if this may not amount to ‘sufficient protection’.

Owing to a range of factors, some people do not remain in these first countries of asylum, but engage in what is called ‘secondary movement’. A clear example of secondary movement was when Syrians and others who had been in first countries of asylum in the region began moving onwards to Europe during 2015-2016. Secondary movements also occur between countries of the global south, but these are even less well-understood than south-north movements.

The purpose of this workshop was to launch an initiative to develop a better understanding of the kinds of factors that influence secondary movement and to gain insights into how refugees make decisions in first countries of asylum. This initiative ties in to one of the strategic priorities of the Institute’s People on the Move thematic area, which is enhancing the protection of people in first countries of asylum.

The workshop itself took place over 1.5 days, and consisted of a series of panel discussions and roundtables addressing theoretical approaches to refugee decision-making, gaining insights into some concrete situations based on empirical research including in Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon, and discussing different methodologies for improving understanding of decision-making at different stages of displacement. Roundtables invited participants with direct field experience to reflect on how a better understanding of refugee decision-making could improve protection, and preliminary discussions on how to develop a new research initiative in this area took place.

Although it is not possible to condense the multiple, at times stunning, insights gained in this workshop into a few final reflections, what does emerge quite clearly is an appreciation of the need for ever-more nuanced and granular insights from local level contexts that can nevertheless be aggregated in a way that can be operationalised by actors of protection working on more regional or global levels. A synergy between local insights, big data and robust theoretical models, together with better communication between field-level practitioners, universities, UN and other international agencies amongst others sounds like a big ask, but the research and networking initiative that we launched at this workshop certainly felt like one step in the right direction.

Also participating in the workshop from RWI were Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, RWI’s Research Director; Yasar Abduh, RWI Programme Officer based in Amman; Ilhami Alkan Olsson, Chief Consultant, RWI in Turkey; and Seda Alp, Senior Programme Advisor, RWI Turkey.