What do we know about social networks under forced migration? Recent scholarship and new directions for research

Published 16 June 2021 / By Kristen McCollum

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Refugee Week is in full-swing this week with a theme that calls for us to consider how relationships form a crucial aspect for refugee wellbeing: “We Cannot Walk Alone.” This theme speaks particularly to my own research interests, which focus on the economic and social consequences of social networks during forced displacement. Of course, there is a long history of scholarship on the influence that networks have on migrants’ decisions to move and outcomes upon arrival. But beyond some pretty bleak assumptions, we still know very little about how relationships are dissolved, created, or maintained during an experience of forced displacement.

So what do we know about social networks and forced migration? Over the last year or so, some great papers have come out from scholars pushing us to re-think assumptions about social networks and displacement. Below I weave together their findings, highlight burgeoning topics for research, and give a shout-out to some new scholars to look out for.

Finding 1: Relationships form on the journey

Literature on networks and migration more generally often speak with a false dichotomy between the origin and the destination networks. This year’s scholarship on networks in forced displacement highlights a focus on the journey, a period of the migration process that is particularly salient in the experience of non-voluntary migrants. New work from D’Angelo (2021) points out the common narrative that refugees start with a ‘stable life’ before it is completely disrupted and stripped of all relationships, and they are forced to create an entirely new social life in their destination. He argues that this assumption views network formation as a passive phenomenon, and not one in which refugees are actively practicing agency. One of the most important spaces where this agency is exercised is during the move itself.

I particularly appreciate Stites and her colleagues’ (2021) descriptions of the relationships formed during the journey from South Sudan to Uganda. Their rich qualitative research illustrates how relationships formed en route were sometimes more crucial than ties from their origin communities, and that these relationships remained important sources of support even upon settlement in the host country.

Finding 2: Social networks matter for policy

The paper goes on to offer important lessons to be considered in programming and policy making. Humanitarian and development actors can consider programming which facilitates connections that refugees wish to form. Given the influence of networks in the destination, programmers should better understand how these networks are gendered or patterned along ethnic lines, to ensure information and resources are shared effectively. One particularly powerful quote from a man in Rhino Camp lamented the lack of consideration for their networks when assigning settlements, saying “The only thing that separated us was the UN” (pg. 8).

Moving 600 kilometers east to Kakuma Camp in Kenya, Betts and his co-authors (2020) also describe how consequential networks are for policy decisions. Klobeyei, a new ‘hybrid-settlement’ offering increased autonomy and economic opportunity, opened to refugees settled in Kakuma – but few were actually willing to move. Why? One reason is the potential benefits did not outweigh the certain loss of their support networks in Kakuma. This revealed preference for social networks illustrates how highly valued they are to displaced people, and how their consideration is crucial for policy aimed at supporting refugees.

Finding 3: Networks in displacement require tailored methods

The nature of displacement mean that the methods typically used to measure migrant networks should be adapted to the forced migration context. D’Angelo’s work mentioned earlier highlights several reasons why longitudinal data is crucial for this research. First, the dynamism of forced migration requires several data snapshots to accurately capture an experience of displacement. Forcibly displaced people do not always know where they will be stopping next, and much less who they will be meeting. It is difficult for a researcher to know at any given time which of these ties will become particularly important in the future. Further, the methodology and labels require moving past Western-centric understandings of what makes for a ‘friend.’ These categories are not always clear, as casual encounters or even relationships with smugglers may become particularly influential ties.

Of course, longitudinal data collection with migrants – and especially refugees – is challenging, given that they are always potentially moving by definition. There is more methodological work to do in this space, to improve how networks during displacement are both captured and analyzed.

New directions

To this point, D’Angelo calls for us to move past a superficial approach of conceptualizing networks as merely a set of connections, to understanding them as structured, social forces. For this, we need a structural analysis – commonly called Social Network Analysis (SNA). Indeed, a central pillar of many social sciences is the concept that social structures are entities in themselves, with qualities that impact the lived experiences of those within them. A move toward incorporating SNA in forced migration studies can help us bridge the micro- with the macro-level factors that influence migrants’ wellbeing.

Of course, determining causality with networks is a puzzle plagued by endogeneity. My own research theorizes forced migration as an exogenous shock, allowing us to pause the ‘circular and cumulative causation’ between networks and migration[1] to better understand how each influences the other. Other causality-minded upcoming scholars include Claire Le Barbenchon, whose co-authored paper on Demography and Networks was published this year, and Daniel Thomas, who focuses on the intersection of networks, displacement, and conflict.

But before we test the causal implications of networks, we first need a better theoretical understanding of how displacement and social networks are related. The past year’s scholarship made an important contribution to this goal, and I expect this week’s discussions to do the same as we reflect on a key principle of Refugee Week: “There is a Bigger Us.”


Featured Papers (by order of mention)

The networked refugee: The role of transnational networks in the journeys across the Mediterranean,

D’Angelo, Alessio

Global Networks, (Early View), 2021


Social Connections and Displacement from South Sudan to Uganda: Towards a Relational Understanding of Survival during Conflict

Elizabeth Stites, Alex Humphrey, Roxani Krystalli

Journal of Refugee Studies, (Pre-publication) feaa109, 2021


Self-reliance and Social Networks: Explaining Refugees’ Reluctance to Relocate from Kakuma to Kalobeyei

Alexander Betts, Naohiko Omata, Olivier Sterck

Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 33, Issue 1, March 2020


[1] Curran, S. & Saguy, A. 2001. Migration and Cultural Change: A Role for Gender and Social Networks? Journal of International Women's Studies, 2.

Kristen McCollum is a DPhil student in Migration Studies and a Grand Union DTP Scholar with an Advanced Quantitative Methods award. Her research interests include experimental and non-experimental program evaluation methodologies in humanitarian contexts, and particularly the role of social networks in redefining or cementing social norms during the refugee resettlement process.

Two women hug after reaching safety in the North Shore of Lesvos.