Forced Migration and Human Rights Research Paper

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Being forced to leave one’s home or homeland constitutes a gross violation of human rights. Tragically, over 60 million people worldwide have been forcibly removed from their homes. The causes of forced displacement are diverse and include natural or manmade disasters, human trafficking, war and civil war, genocide, development projects, evictions, and political, social, ethnic, or religious persecution. According to recent figures published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR 2010), over 43.3 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution.

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The sheer enormity of these numbers should imply that forced displacement is central to discussions of human rights. Yet, forced displacement has not received the same attention as other human rights violations in public discourse in academia and “often seems to be accepted as a sad but inevitable consequence of war” (Hollenbach 2008: 2). Furthermore, the study of refugees is often overlooked in academia. Demonstrating the slow pace in which academics focused on refugees, the interdisciplinary field of “refugee studies” did not emerge until the early 1980s. Further, it was not until the late 1990s that a significant number of academic reviews of internally displaced people (IDP), individuals who are forcibly displaced and remain inside their original country, were published.

Criminologists should have much to contribute to the study of forced displacement and the relationship between crime, human rights, and social justice. However, the discipline of criminology has been remarkably unresponsive to examining the role of the state in acts of persecution and crimes committed by the state more generally. Inherent to the definition of refugee is recognizing either a state’s crime against its citizens, the state’s inability to protect its citizens, or the state’s willingness to turn a blind eye on crimes committed against its citizens. For the most part, the discipline of criminology has failed to incorporate forced displacement into their research agenda. Instead, criminologists are primarily concerned with interpersonal acts of violence such as homicide, rape, and robbery. In other words, the focus of mainstream criminology is predominately the individual or possibly the neighborhood rather than the state as a unit of analysis. One notable exception is critical criminologists who are attentive to state crimes and crimes of the powerful more generally. Similar to criminologists silence on the topic of genocide is their silence on the topic of forced displacement (Hagan and Rymond-Richmond 2008).

Causes Of Forced Displacement

According to recent figures published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR 2010), over 43 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution. The causes of forced displacement are diverse and include natural or manmade disasters, human trafficking, war and civil war, genocide, development projects, evictions, and political, social, ethnic, or religious persecution. The focus of this research paper is forced displacement due to conflict and persecution rather than forced displacement due to natural or manmade disasters.

While evictions might not initially register to some as a form of displacement resulting from conflict and persecution, human rights violations may occur during the process of urban redevelopment. Forced displacement and human rights violation can occur when individuals or families are forcibly evicted. This may occur because of urban redevelopment, “beautification” projects, gentrification, or as a side effect of development. Like other displaced people, those who are forcibly evicted may experience trauma from being forced out of one’s home and or community. In recent years, the United Nations human rights program has become more attentive to examining human rights violations that occur in the practice of forced evictions. One example from the United Nations in regards to human rights violations and evictions comes from Miloon Kothari, the United Nation’s highest-ranking expert on housing issues. After visiting a public housing development in Chicago that was slated to undergo demolition and redevelopment, Kothari stated that “evictions of public housing residents in the United States clearly violate international human rights, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (Hagedorn and Rauch 2007: 451). Under these guidelines, some public housing residents could qualify as internally displaced people (ibid).

Definition Of Immigrants, Refugees, And Internally Displaced Persons

Defining and classifying who is and who is not a refugee has serious consequences for individuals and families. For some, being defined as a refugee can be a matter of life and death because with refugee status comes international protection. The legal definition of refugee was established in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol:

Any person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

There are significant critiques and debates regarding the definition of refugee. First, is a dispute regarding whether immigrants and refugees are fundamentally distinct categories. Refugees and immigrants share common disadvantages including high levels of poverty and discrimination in their home country. Nonetheless, some argue that significant differences exist. One the one hand is the realist perspective, which suggests that the groups are distinguished by whether the migration was by choice or not. For refugees the migration is not by choice but due to social, cultural, or political pressures, which forced them out of their native country. For immigrants, the migration is by choice and typically for economic opportunities. Additional distinctions are made between the categories based on their likely ability to return to one’s homeland and their relationship to the state (see Kunz 1973). On the other hand is the nominalist perspective, which suggests that the binary categories are blurry, are socially constructed, used to advance state interests, and mask the similarities between immigrants and refugees.

Among the debates regarding the definition of refugee is whether the definition is too broad or too narrow. Those who find the definition to be too broad emphasize that individuals defined as refugees have exceptionally diverse historical and political origins. Individuals’ cultural, psychological, economic, spiritual, and personal differences may be minimalized as they are collectively subsumed under the label of refugee. Others assert that the definition is too narrow because the focus is on individual persecution rather than generalized persecution resulting from violence and war. Two legal documents that attempt to rectify this limitation are the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartegena Declaration on Refugees. Both of these regional legal instruments broaden the definition of refugee to include persons who “have been threatened by generalized violence” (1984 Cartegena Declaration on Refugees).

The legal definition of refugee is further critiqued for being too narrow because it excludes individuals who were displaced from their homes for similar reasons as refugees, but have not left their country of origin and crossed an international boarder. The term used for this exceptionally large group of individuals is internally displaced persons (IDP). Approximately 25–30 million IDP’s were displaced because of conflict. While there is no legal definition of IDPs, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provides the following definition:

internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

Rather than adjudicate between these positions, the purpose here is to highlight controversies surrounding the definition of immigrants, refugees, and internally displaced persons and to examine human rights violations of forced migration.

Legal Violations And Rights Of Forcibly Displaced People

The rights to freedom of movement, rights to choose one’s residence, rights to security of the person, rights to life, and rights to freedom of expression are recognized in many international laws and national constitutions. In particular, forced displacement violates a number of international laws including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art.25, para.1), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (art. 11, para. 1), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols.

Several international legal documents outline the rights of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people. The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the landmark legal instrument to protect and assist refugees. Additional documents supporting the human rights of migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people include the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees; the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa; and the 1990 International Convention on Migrant Rights, which established that all migrant workers, whether they are documented or not, have fundamental human rights. Furthermore, the UN Pinheiro Principles detail the rights individuals have regarding returning home after a violent conflict. According to this document, individuals not only have the right to return home, but they also have the right to return to the same property. The aim of this principle is to ensure that no one profits from the violence and to reduce the amount of victimization that may occur after being forcibly displaced.

Status Of Forcible Displacement: Refugees


Accurately counting the number of refugees is difficult. According to the UNHCR, refugees totaled approximately 10.4 million refugee in 2009 and 10.55 million in 2010. The UNHCR’s count of refugees is problematic because it does not include the large number of individuals displaced in urban cities around the world. Furthermore, the number does not include the more than 25 million individuals that are internally displaced.

Refugees are located throughout the world. The largest numbers are located in the Middle East and North Africa. There are approximately 2.7 million refugees in African, and 2.5 million refugees are in South and Central Asia. Refugees number nearly 650,000 in America and the Caribbean and nearly half a million in Europe. Pakistan hosted the highest number of refugees in 2010. By the end of 2010, the UNHCR estimates that the largest country of origin of refugees was Afghanistan (3.05 million), followed by Iraq (1.7 million), Somalia (770,000), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (477,000), and Myanmar (416,000).

Approximately one-third of refugees currently live in a camp. Following larger population trends, since the 1950s, refugees are increasing settling in urban areas and mostly in developed countries. More than half of all refugees now reside in urban areas, and nearly half of refugees are women (47 %) and children (47 %).


In 2010, the number of people internally displaced by human rights violations, violence, and armed conflict totaled 27.5 million, the highest number in 10 years. Estimates are that 11.2–13.7 million children by the end of 2010 were internally displaced as a result of human rights violations, violence, and armed conflict. Approximately 80 % of all internally displaced individuals are women and children. Like refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) reside in countries throughout the world. The largest numbers are located in Columbia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. In each of these countries, the IDP population was over one million. In 1 year alone, 2010, it is estimated that at least 2.9 million people in 20 countries were newly displaced. At least 200,000 IDPs in 2010 were displaced in the countries of Columbia, DRC, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan (IDMC 2010).

Current Issues And Controversies

  1. Lack of Protection for Internally Displaced Individuals

The UNHCR is responsible for protecting and assisting refugees; however, there is no comparable organization within the United Nations for internally displaced persons. With little to no international legal protection, internally displaced individuals often suffer greatly at the hands of their government. In 2010, attacks or threats against humanitarian workers occurred in Darfur, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Columbia (IDMC 2010). In Darfur, the Sudanese government has prevented delivery of medical care and humanitarian aid to IDP camps (see ICC 2007; Totten 2006).

  1. Refugees in Urban Areas

More than half of all refugees currently reside in urban areas. Rather than be displaced in a refugee camp, many individuals select to be displaced in a city. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres argues that their complex and unique challenges requires a radically new approach to providing protection and assistance. The primary concern is that internally displaced people receive fewer benefits if they live in urban areas than if they live in camps. Authorities often do not recognize them as displaced people and therefore do not provide them with services they are legally entitled to.

  1. Protracted Displacement

Returning home for a refugee is uncertain and typically involves a lengthy stay in a refugee camp. Displaced people may be displaced for years of even for decades. Nearly two-thirds of all refugees are in a protracted refugee situation, which is defined by the UNHCR as being in exile for more than 5 years. Like refugees, IDPs suffer from lengthy displacement. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) found that at least 40 countries in 2010 contained IDPs living in protracted displacement. Protracted displacement violates numerous human rights contained in the 1951 Convention. Displacement affects all of nearly all aspects of life. Consequences of prolonged displacement includes poverty, loss of material possessions, kinship and village structure altered, and potential lack of ability to practice the culture and livelihood as they had in their homeland.

  1. Loss of power and culture?

Is culture lost when one is displaced? Should it be presumed that with loss of homeland come loss of cultural identity? To what extent is culture tie to homeland? Is culture portable or is it tied to homeland in such a way that it is lost when forcibly displaced? The effect of displacement on culture and identity is a divisive topic. Our most nuanced theories of the relationship between displacement and culture comes from anthropological studies. Some anthropologists contend that while there is a strong tendency to equate displacement with loss of culture, this is an essentialist conception of place and emphasize that identity and place should be separated to show that when refugees are displaced, they do not necessarily lose their culture, identity, and power (Malkki 1995).

  1. Crime, Perceptions of Crime, and Victimization

After being persecuted in one’s homeland for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, refugees frequently continue to be discriminated against and victimized in the country that offers them asylum. In other words, refugees are forced to cope with discrimination, marginalization, and persecution in both their home and host country (see Pickering 2005). Refugees displaced due to genocide may continue to be victimized in much the same way as they were in their home country, and they may suffer from new forms of victimization such as ostracism, stigmatization, family disruption, domestic violence, and poverty.

Women in refugee camps from around the world report victimization that stems from gendered division of labor among some refugees. For example, collecting wood and water is often the delegated responsibility of women, and these activities make refugees more vulnerable to attacks because it requires travel to the edges and outskirts of the camps (see Hyndman 2004; Rymond-Richmond and Hagan 2012). In addition, raped women may continue to be victimized via physical trauma, sexually transmitted diseases, ostracism, and reduced likelihood of marriage.

One of the debilitating forms of discrimination is widespread negative stereotypes of refugees that render the refugee as undeserving, different, and marginalized. Of the stereotypes, perhaps none is more pervasive, damming, and incorrect than the perceptions of refugees as criminals. In fact, the perception of crime often extends beyond refugees to include all migrants. In the United States, the connection between immigration and crime has recently been in the spotlight, and it is here that members of the discipline of criminology have made valuable contributions. According to a poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in 2000, 73 % of Americans said they believed that immigrants are either “somewhat” or “very” likely to increase crime. Research by sociologists and criminologists find this perception is not only unsupported by data, but evidence demonstrates the opposite. Sampson and his colleagues examined more than 3,000 violent acts committed in Chicago from 1995 to 2003, census data, police reports, and a survey of more than 8,000 residents. They found that immigrants have lower rates of criminal involvement than nonimmigrants. In fact, first-generation Mexican immigrants were 45 % less likely to engage in violence than third-generation Americans. This pattern also extended to neighborhoods. Neighborhoods with large shares of immigrants tend to have lower levels of violence than similarly situated neighborhoods with few immigrants (Sampson 2008).

Coupled with the perception of migrants being criminal is a sentiment that all migration is illegal and undesired. In the USA, one of the results of this negative perception of immigrants is the passing of Arizona Senate Bill 1070. This controversial legislative act has received national and international attention and is considered the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration in US history. The result is discriminatory practices of police harassment and arrests including the right of police to demand immigration documents from any individual perceived as being undocumented. While other states are considering adopting similar legislation, some police departments discourage this practice because it could discourage immigrants from reporting crimes and cooperating with law enforcement. Further, a victimized group will likely be discouraged from reporting crimes committed against them, thereby leading to increased victimization of an already vulnerable population. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council that SB1070 was evidence of human rights violations in the United States.

  1. Human Rights of Migrants

While the focus of this research paper is human rights violations associated with forced migration, human rights violations are not limited to this particular type of migrant. In fact, “Evidence demonstrates that violations of migrants’ human rights are so widespread and commonplace that they are a defining feature of international migration today” (Taran 2002:1). Yet, research on human rights of migrants has been minimal. Currently, there are approximately 214 million international migrants worldwide. Migrants represent 3.1 % of the world’s population, or one out of every 33 individuals. 7.6 % of migrants are refugees.

A few notable advancements in protecting migrant’s human rights include the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants and 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The convention aims to prevent and eliminate exploitation of migrant workers. Further, the convention extends fundamental human rights to all migrant workers whether they are documented or undocumented.

  1. “Refugee Studies” versus “Forced Migration Studies”

Refugee studies emerged as an interdisciplinary field in the early 1980s. In more recent times, there has been scholarly debate concerning a paradigm shift from “refugee studies” in favor of “forced migration studies.” The shift is largely motivated by the recognition that internally displaced people share much in common with refugees, yet technically would fall outside the scope of “refugee studies.” Forced migration studies, on the other hand, would include the study of both categories of displaced people. For some, broadening the field of study signifies inclusion of a marginalized and invisible group of people. Others object with a primary concern that doing so could weaken attention on refugee concerns and detract from the distinct legal status and protection of refugees under international law.

  1. Mental health

Chronic mental health problems, which include depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of genocide and ethnic violence, affect a significant portion of refugees (De Jong et al 2001; Fazel et al. 2005). A survey of Darfur refugees in Cairo described depressive symptoms that include “hopelessness, tearfulness, apathy, decreased concentration, decreased or increased sleep, low appetite, weight loss, low mood, decreased energy, and guilt” (Meffert and Marmar 2009, 1841). Trauma for some forcibly displaced people may include witnessing extremely brutal killings and tortures. Darfurian refugees who survived the genocide provide a glimpse of the extreme brutality they witnessed and experienced. Several Darfurians interviewed as part of the ADS data reported perpetrators targeted pregnant women, male babies or fetuses, and children for torture and death (Rymond-Richmond and Hagan 2012). One female refugee witnessed extreme torture of young boys in the village, which included slitting their throat, cutting the foot open from the big toe to the ankle, cutting off hands and sexual organs, removal of the brain, and removal of skin. Another refugee from a small village in Darfur witnessed the death of seven men who were “dismembered alive. They cut off their penises and put them in their mouths. Cut off their tongues and cut them into pieces.”

Future Directions And Suggestions

  1. The discipline of criminology should expand beyond focusing on individual criminal actions to include crimes committed by the state. Studying refugees requires this shift as the state is implicated as either the perpetrator of the crime, incapable of protecting its citizens from persecution or approving of the persecution.
  2. Internally displaced persons are without a single agency clearly mandated to assist and protect IDPs. Assistance and protection of forcibly displaced people must include this marginalized population. The appointment of a representative on internally displaced persons (Walter K€alin as of 2004) by the United Nations Secretary-General is a step in the right direction, and significant progress will hopefully be made towards granting this group aid and protection.
  3. The rights and protection of children in refugee camps and internally displaced camps must be upheld and prioritized. Children continue to be victimized and targeted for exploitation after being forcibly displaced from their homelands. In addition, their international human right to education is inhumanely comprised.


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