Background and Scope of the Project

For centuries the movement of people from one place to another has remained an integral aspect of our human history. All over the world on an annual basis thousands of people leave the place they call home and travel—to a nearby city or a distant destination in a country or continent thousands of miles away—to seek something better for themselves. People move voluntarily for different reasons, perhaps for a job, better wages, a marriage partner, a chance to reunite with family members, an opportunity to experience a different part of the world, to get an education, and for assorted lifestyle preferences. Others move less out of choice than necessity, as they are forced to flee circumstances that are unsafe, insecure, and generally untenable. No matter what the drivers or reasons behind it, migration on a global scale is an everyday practice. The term itself is used to describe patterns of human mobility that occur internally within a state or region, as well as those taking place internationally and trans-continentally. Migration can be applied to the process of people moving as a result of their own agency, voluntarily and as a choice. It can also be used to describe the process of having to move under duress, and this includes the categories of forced migrants, internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers.

The Middle East has historically served as a locus of displacement for a number of reasons, including, among other things, the legacy of imperial rule and colonial occupation; territorial warfare and the creation of contested boundaries; sporadic interstate warfare and ongoing regional conflict; and internecine conflict. In addition, authoritarian rule and repressive action by the state, political and ethnic violence, economic exclusion, and tenuous rights to and of citizenship are regularly cited as some of the contributing factors for the creation of both internal displacement and international refugee flows in the Middle East. Some have also suggested that pervasive poverty and resource scarcity are contributing factors to the region’s high number of internally displaced persons and heavy volume of refugees. However, although poverty and scarcity may serve as a catalyst for human displacement and migration, there are many parts of the world with far higher levels of poverty than the Middle East but without similar patterns of involuntary displacement.

The high numbers of the forcibly displaced in the Middle East raise fundamental questions concerning the political organization of power and authority in the region. The very process of state formation and the consolidation of a centralized political authority can lead to human displacement and the creation of refugee populations, which certainly can be applied to the context of the Middle East. Political science literature on the Middle East has often ignored some of these deeper questions around the politics of population displacement, perhaps due to the tendency to treat this phenomenon as either a consequence of territorial conflict and civil war, or as a symptom of domestic political instability and identity politics. Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness that the creation of internally displaced and refugee populations, in the Middle East and elsewhere, is more than just merely symptomatic of identity politics or a result of interstate conflicts. Creating and sustaining displacement and statelessness may also be a strategic tool used by political actors for particular political goals, such as asserting authority over contested territories, controlling and marginalizing specific segments of the population, and embarking on nation-building projects steeped in exclusionary narratives of national identity and citizenship.

The Middle East is currently facing one of its most critical migration challenges, and the region has become the simultaneous producer and host to the world’s largest population of displaced people. As a result of the past several years of ongoing conflict, particularly in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, there have been sharp increases in the numbers of the internally displaced, forced migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, primarily located within the Middle East but also from there on to Europe. This seemingly unending flow of forced migrants has caused disruptions to economic, political, and social stability in a number of countries. The current flight of Syrian refugees to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey illustrates how easily conditions can disintegrate, so that a country like Syria that historically served as a sanctuary for and provided protection to those fleeing persecution or declining economic prospects is now producing millions of refugees and displaced populations of its own. The region also demonstrates how countries can simultaneously serve as host states for migrants and refugees while also contributing a large a diaspora of their own citizens either to other countries within the region or else around the world, as we can see is the cases of Lebanon and Iran.

Exploring the conditions, causes, and consequences of on-going population displacements in the Middle East is key to better understanding some of the profound social and political changes currently underway in the region. Over the course of the past eight years, CIRS has produced original, empirically-grounded research on the topic of migration. Two previous grant cycle projects—one on the topic of Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf and the other on Arab Migrant Communities in the GCC—have taken place, through which CIRS has awarded research grants to scholars carrying out in-depth studies on specific aspects of regional migration. Given this ongoing commitment to exploring the subject of migration, in the 2016-2017 academic year CIRS is launching a grant cycle to support in-depth, empirically-based examinations of mobility and displacement within the Middle East, and to gain a fuller understanding of the forms, causes, dimensions, patterns, and effects of migration, both voluntary and forced.

Through this research project we are seeking to broaden our understanding of the complex population movements that are seen in the Middle East, and to include the movements of those who may be identified in multiple different ways—migrants, migrant workers, guest workers, temporary migrants, low and highly skilled economic migrants, trafficked persons, forced migrants/forced workers, smuggled persons, refugees, and asylum seekers. Also included will be  other migrants such as unaccompanied minors, environmental refugees, and stranded migrants.

This project recognizes regional migration as a complex, widespread, and persistent phenomenon in the Middle East, and a topic best studied from a multidisciplinary approach. In addition to supporting empirical research through soliciting grant proposals that address some of the areas of inquiry listed below, our research initiative is designed to create a scholarly forum for studying the main themes around mobility, displacement, and forced migration in the Middle East. Through regular CIRS-sponsored research meetings, our grant awardees will be able to share their research findings with other academics, policymakers, and practitioners.

All proposals on the broader themes of mobility, displacement, and forced migration in the Middle East will be considered. We are particularly interested in supporting research projects that address elements of the areas outlined below.

Areas of Inquiry:

  • typologies, categories, and classes of migrants in the Middle East: labor migrants vs. the internally displaced, vs. the stateless, and others
  • migration, mobility, and political economy
  • state-building, nationalism, political identity, and population displacement
  • citizenship, nationality, identity, and statelessness
  • the state, legal regimes, and national migration policy
  • state sovereignty, boundaries and borders, and regional mobility
  • regional migration platforms, cooperative frameworks, and the governance of international migration
  • internal displacement: drivers, causes, and forms of internal displacement and mobility within the Middle East
  • dispossession, deterritorialization, and identity formation in the Middle East
  • poverty, inequality, and economic migration: from MENA to the world
  • resource-rich states and regional labor migrants: from the MENA to the Persian Gulf
  • poverty, inequality, and forced migration
  • gender-discrimination, nationality law and statelessness
  • contemporary patterns of rural-urban migration
  • youth migration strategies
  • student mobilities
  • female skilled and low skilled migrants
  • crisis migration, protection, relocation and resettlement
  • forced immobility, trapped populations, and those left behind
  • the political economy of internal displacement
  • low skilled and highly skilled refugees
  • refugee camps – safety, security, crime, and violence
  • refugee camps – education, training, skill development
  • refugee camps – health and wellness
  • refugees and migrants’ lived experiences in the host state: economic integration, social cohesion, political inclusion, identity, and belonging
  • the myth of return: returning refugees’ experiences and their post-return transnational lives
  • refugee return and remigrations
  • cross-border mobility, socio-economic networks, and transnational livelihoods of displaced people
  • the role of diasporas and transnational migrant communities in conflict resolution, transitional justice, and post conflict nation-state building projects
  • hospitality versus hostility – Mediterranean response to the Middle Eastern refugees
  • stranded migrants: the displacement of non-citizens during conflict and crises
  • migration as a strategy for adaptation to climate-related events
  • environmental stress, natural resource scarcity, rural livelihoods, and mobility
  • irregular migrants, refugee protection, and forcible repatriation to zones of conflict and war
  • human trafficking, human smuggling, criminal networks, and mixed migration in the Middle East and Mediterranean


Click here to read more about another related CIRS research initiative, “Migrant Labor in the Gulf.”


Article by Zahra Babar, Associate Director of Research at CIRS