Can cross-border networks secure survival?

EU research project on transnational dimensions of forced displacement

Naila and her family have had to flee often. In 1990, they left their home town north of Kabul in Afghanistan to escape from the civil war. For three years, they sought refuge in a village near Jalalabad. Following a bomb attack, they moved across the border to Peshawar, Pakistan. For a time, they lived in refugee camps. After the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, Naila returned to Afghanistan. Some members of the family went to Iran, to work there for a short while and support other family members with money. Others tried their luck in Jalalabad but were not successful. In Kabul, the family reunited, but the police drove them out of a self-organised camp for internally displaced people. Since 2010, Naila’s family and 150 other families have been living in an illegal settlement (see Grawert & Mielke 2018 for the full case study.

This very brief insight into Naila’s life shows that forced migration is extremely complex and that internal displacement, cross-border flight, return, labour migration and other forms of mobility are closely interwoven. In addition, this example demonstrates that fleeing is only rarely the decision of a single individual and instead invariably something that happens in the context of family relationships or other personal networks; in both cases state borders are often crossed and social relations become transnational.

Photo: BICC\K.Mielke

What role do transnational networks play in the lives of those seeking protection?

This question is at the focus of our research project ‘Transnational Figurations of Displacement’ (TRAFIG), which twelve partner organisations are jointly conducting since the start of 2019. Above all, our project is investigating whether and how the cross-border networks of refugees – what we refer to as ‘transnational figurations of displacement’ – facilitate overcoming so-called protracted displacement (see TRAFIG Working Paper No. 1 for definitions of key terms).

Empirical research in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Europe

The researchers involved in the project are looking at the relations between protracted displacement and transnational connectivity as well as mobility in five regions:

  • In East Africa, we undertake research on both the dynamics of internal displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the living conditions and networks of Congolese refugees in Tanzania.
  • In the Horn of Africa, the focus lies on Eritreans who are seeking protection and their situation in refugee camps and cities in Ethiopia.
  • In the Middle East, we investigate the everyday lives, coping strategies and networks of Syrian refugees in Jordan.
  • In South Asia, the deeply entrenched protracted displacement situations and transnational linkages between Afghanistan and Pakistan are focussed at.

However, our research goes beyond these regions that are directly affected by protracted displacement.
In Europe, we first aim to better comprehend the transnational connections of Afghan, Syrian, Congolese and Eritrean refugees and how their mobilities and networks impact refugees in the aforementioned regions. Second, we examine whether, in Greece and Italy in particular, new protracted displacement situations are emerging, and to what extent these developments are connected to the fault lines and protection gaps in the Common European Asylum System.

From Research to Policy and Practice

The aim of the project is then to not only obtain new research findings on protracted displacement and the transnational life of those seeking protection, but also to advise those in politics and in practice—based on this research—on how political frameworks and concrete support and assistance programmes can be improved by incorporating, for example, the transnational networks of refugees.

By Benjamin Etzold

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