Geography Geography of Refugees
Jessie Clark
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0237


While there is debate about terminology, ‘refugee’ broadly defined refers to people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. In 2019, there were 26 million refugees, 45.7 million internally displaced persons, and 4.2 million asylum seekers according to the UNHCR. By legal definition, refugees are those who cross international borders and are legally processed in another country; asylum seekers are those seeking legal protections in other countries; and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are individuals who have been displaced within the boundaries of their country. There are 148 state signatories, including the United States, on either or both the 1951 Convention on Refugees, formed in the aftermath of WWII, and the follow-up 1967 Protocol. The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees outlined the legal definition and rights of refugees and the obligations of receiving countries. Taken today as customary international law, this agreement was premised on a right to move. In the 21st century, the refugee experience globally has been characterized by decreased mobility; protracted journeys that are punctuated with legal and physical waits and permanent residency in informal encampments; or increasingly dangerous travels via informal, illegal, and unsafe smuggling networks. Refugee management is a global process that both transcends and is shaped by the fortification of borders—national and otherwise. While much of the current legal framework dictating the rights of refugees was adopted in the context of large-scale war, in the 21st century causes of forced displacement include those that are war-induced or famine-induced, or caused by environmental change, natural disasters, government coercion or oppression, and the construction of large infrastructural projects, such as dams or mega-event complexes. To study refugees from a geographic perspective is to examine the spatial dimensions of the nation state system that legally and materially produces refugees, the multiple and interacting scales of government that oversee and manage refugee movements and settlement, and the embodied spatial experience of being displaced and dislocated across time and space. Moreover, geography offers methodological frameworks to understand and study the origins, impacts, and experience of forced displacement.

General Overview

In human geography, refugee-related research is informed by theoretical contributions from the subfields of migration and political, urban, and feminist geography, as well as foundational works in political theory. Building on the work of political theorists like Arendt 1958, Agamben 2005, and Mbembe and Corcoran 2019, geographers critique the institution of state sovereignty that attaches human rights to political membership in a territory, exposing all life to social, political, and legal death. The centrality of territory to the organization of social life (and death) has long concerned political geographers but historicizing and spatializing the modern figure of the refugee as a legal problem is relatively new. In the category of geography, Skop, et al. 2019 details how refugee scholarship was shaped by regional geography and the quantitative revolution through the 1980s. The cultural turn in the 1990s brought a critical and feminist lens to geographies of migration, subsequently influenced by the turn to studying mobilities, transnationalism, diaspora studies, and gendered approaches detailed in Blunt 2007, King 2012, and Silvey and Lawson 1999. A dramatic increase in globally displacement in the 21st century and the ‘securitization of migration’ associated with the global war on terror and the Arab Spring, among other political events, revitalized scholarship in critical refugee and migration geographies, exemplified in the report Ehrkamp 2017 and an edited collection Mitchell, et al. 2019, while Baldwin and Bettini 2017 is an edited a collection of essays on climate and migration.

  • Agamben, G. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    Agamben introduces the concept of the ‘exception’ and argues that the ability of the state to suspend law and protections in certain ‘exceptions’ is an inherent and commonplace component of modern state power. Geographers use Agamben to theorize the spatial dimensions of exceptional politics.

  • Arendt, H. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 2d enlarged ed. Meridian Books, 1958.

    Arendt details the rise of anti-Semitic racism, imperialism, and totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and the role of totalitarianism in eroding the nation-state system in Europe, producing a mass class of stateless persons, who, deprived of citizenship, are deprived of all humanity.

  • Baldwin, A., and G. Bettini, eds. Life Adrift: Climate Change, Migration, Critique. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.

    Life Adrift is a collection of essays from across the social sciences that explores the relationship between climate and migration. It is one of the few books in geography that addresses explicitly the growing realities of climate-induced displacement.

  • Blunt, A. “Cultural Geographies of Migration: Mobility, Transnationality and Diaspora.” Progress in Human Geography 31.5 (2007): 684–694.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132507078945

    Blunt reports on the state of migration studies and traces three trends in the field related to mobility and the ‘mobility turn’ in geography, transnationality, and diaspora. Blunt reviews scholarship that explores mobility across transnational and diaspora space.

  • Ehrkamp, P. “Geographies of Migration I: Refugees.” Progress in Human Geography 41.6 (2017): 813–822.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132516663061

    In the first of three articles summarizing the state of the field in migration geography, Ehrkamp focuses explicitly on refugees and reviews scholarship on the securitization of migration, spaces of containment and detention, and refugee subjectivities.

  • King, R. “Geography and Migration Studies: Retrospect and Prospect.” In Special Issue: Re‐Making Migration Theory: Transitions, Intersections and Cross‐Fertilisations. Edited by Darren P. Smith and Russell King. Population, Space and Place 18.2 (2012): 134–153.

    DOI: 10.1002/psp.685

    This article identifies current trends at the intersections of geography and migration studies, including the mobilities turn, transnationalism, diaspora studies, and gendered approaches. King revisits foundational theories in migration geography by Ravenstein, Zelinsky, Mabogunje, and Hägerstrand.

  • Mbembe, A., and S. Corcoran. Necropolitics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1131298

    The concept of necropolitics has had a far-reaching influence on scholars of refugees in geography. Mbembe extends Foucault’s theories on biopolitics to examine the sovereign drive to exterminate life. Mbembe writes that modern state power operates through the creation of zones of social, civil, and physical death.

  • Mitchell, K., R. Jones, and J. L. Fluri, eds. Handbook on Critical Geographies of Migration. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019.

    This edited volume brings together work in critical migration geography. The chapters explore the socio-spatial histories and power relations that inform migration in the 21st century. Topics addressed include new technologies on migrant surveillance and policing, humanitarian responses in the management of migrants, and the politics of waiting and detainment.

  • Silvey, R., and V. Lawson. “Placing the Migrant.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 89.1 (1999): 121–132.

    DOI: 10.1111/0004-5608.00134

    This paper reviews the continuities and changes across method and theory with respect to the relationship between place and migration. The authors discuss the value of feminist and postcolonial approaches to better understand the nuances of migrant identity and place construction.

  • Skop, E., J. Tonyan, and A. Cassiday. “Considering Refugees through 100 Years of Geographical Review.” Geographical Review 109.4 (2019): 598–614.

    DOI: 10.1111/gere.12350

    This article uses a bibliographic approach to survey articles on refugees in the Geographical Review from 1916–2018 and shows how geographic scholarship on refugees reflects broader epistemological trends in the discipline as well as the global geopolitical environment.

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