Featured Research

Researchers at Georgetown are using Data to Generate Policy-Driven Solutions to Forced Migration Issues

Written by Tilde Jaques, MDI Journalism Intern

Global forced migration has continued to increase throughout the past decades. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 108.4 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes by the end of 2022. From the rising border encounters at the the United States/Mexico border to the displacement of people impacted by environmental crises to refugees and asylum-seekers related to war and violence, it is clear that forced migration is an increasingly salient global phenomenon. 

The Massive Data Institute (MDI) of Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy has a working relationship with the Walsh School of Foreign Service’s Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) using data to aid research on forced migration. ISIM works with different organizations to improve global understanding of issues facing immigrants and those forcibly displaced, and then use this insight to help formulate policy recommendations. Some of the international organizations that MDI and ISIM partner with include the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR. 

Professor Elizabeth Ferris, the Director of ISIM, has dedicated her career to researching forced migration and humanitarian aid. Ferris served as a senior advisor to the UN Secretary-General in planning the Global Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants.

Among her recent projects, Ferris has been working with the IOM on the Periodic Global Report on the State of Solutions to International Displacement (PROGRESS) project, a new initiative which uses data to “offer people-centered and operationally-relevant insights to expand the evidence base about interventions that contribute to helping displaced communities find solutions and pathways out of displacement,” according to the IOM’s webpage.

Ferris explains that for the PROGRESS project, data plays a vital role in “understanding the dynamics of displacement, understanding how IDPs find (or do not find) solutions, being able to predict migration, assessing the economic contributions and costs of migration, and understanding the needs of migrants and displaced populations.” 

“Through PROGRESS and other research, we hope to be able to inform governments and other stakeholders on policies and programs they could implement which would help IDPs find solutions [to displacement],” Ferris says.

The PROGRESS project uses data from the IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) alongside household survey data to measure levels of self-reliance, security, and well-being among IDPs. The first PROGRESS report was published by the IOM in collaboration with Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in November 2023. 

Professor Katharine Donato, the former Director of the ISIM and current Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration and MDI affiliate, has a long history of using data to understand the trends, dynamics, and impacts of forced migration. Donato and other Georgetown collaborators Ali Arab, Lisa Singh, and Nathan Wycoff recently co-authored several articles that use public organic data sources, data sets that are shared publicly but are not designed data, to predict Ukrainian refugee flows. According to UNHCR, there have been 5.9 million Ukrainian refugees reported in Europe since February 24, 2022. The types of data they used in the study include public social media data from X, search engine data from Google, newspaper articles from NewsAPI, and event data from ACLED, to gain more insight into this statistic and to predict forced displacement in Ukraine. 

Donato explains that the broad goal is to compare results from the analysis of social media data to flow data from UNHCR to “see how close our indicators can come to actual flows.” 

Donato is also working on research funded by the National Science Foundation about environmental migration in Bangladesh using geolocation and survey data. Given that Bangladesh faces hazardous environmental and weather conditions, alongside high arsenic water levels, these conditions promote high levels of forced environmental displacement. Donato is “integrating satellite imagery data with household survey data” to track these displacements. According to Donato, the satellite data allows her to “look at changes in land-use over a twenty year period [to see] how it has shifted over time.” By integrating land-use data with household data, she measures the trends in environmental conditions to better understand patterns of human migration. 

Another professor at the ISIM, Anna Maria Mayda, a Professor in the SFS and the Economics Department and the former Senior Advisor to the Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of State, researches the economic implications of forced migration. She has recently worked with data from the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, a State Department initiative that provides pathways for resettlement to the U.S. for refugees, for her most recent publication. Titled “Refugees and Foreign Direct Investment: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program,” this project analyzes the impacts of forced migration on U.S. foreign direct investments into the countries from which migrants hail. 

Mayda explains that “what we find is that the locations in the U.S. which receive the most refugees send more investments back into the countries of origin of the refugees after a few years.” The countries of origin producing larger numbers of refugees tend to be experiencing economic and political unrest, which means that U.S. foreign direct investments only start to flow once that country has begun to recover. 

For this project, Mayda and the State Department sourced data from individual refugees and “aggregated it to a commuting zone level to determine the number of refugees by commuting zone, by year, and by country of origin.” Commuting zones usually consist of an urban city center and the broader areas around where the majority of commuters who work in the city live. They then combined the data “with data on foreign direct investments from each U.S. commuting zone to the countries of origin of the migrants.” This merged data provides vital information on the international economic effects of forced migration. 

These three researchers give a glimpse at some of the research on forced migration taking place at Georgetown. Their research could be a critical step for finding sustainable solutions to the issue of forced migration, which affects so many people worldwide. 

Donato has been thinking a lot about potential solutions to forced migration, largely sparked by her research. She shares that most of the time, “people don’t want to move. Even in places that are really compromised by climate or conflict, it is still very hard to leave home.” So why some people in these situations move while others don’t will help inform short- and long-term solutions for people in these situations.

Because of this, she says, forced migration researchers and policymakers “can develop ways to support people adapting whether through migration or some other response… to strengthen communities so that many people can stay.” 

To learn more about forced migration, visit the IOM website, Georgetown’s ISIM webpage, or Georgetown’s Massive Data and Displacement project site.

Forced Migration