By Rachel McNally and Nadeea Rahim

80% of the world’s refugees are in the Global South. But what about refugee research?

In 2019, the editors of the journal Migration Studies embarked on a self-reflection process about the geography of submissions to the journal, resulting in a blog post asking the critical question: Does the gap in migration research between high-income countries and the rest of the world matter? They concluded that the “vast majority of migration research seems to be originating in high-income countries.” LERRN’s own analysis of 235 published articles, chapters and books in the field of refugee studies in 2018 [1] showed similar trends, with over 90% of research originating in the Global North.

Inspired by this blog post and our initial analysis, LERRN analyzed the last five years of articles in the Journal of Refugee Studies, looking at the institutional affiliations of the authors and the thematic focus of the articles. The journal, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018 and is considered the top journal in the field, published 167 articles in the five year period between 2015 and 2019. The journal is well aware of some of the issues surrounding imbalances in knowledge production, as shown by the publication of Loren Landau’s 2012 piece “Communities of Knowledge or Tyrannies of Partnership: Reflections on North–South Research Networks and the Dual Imperative.”

Global South vs. Global North

Of the 76 single-authored articles, only 5 (or 7%) were written by authors based in the Global South. The statistic stays the same when looking at the first author: only 11 articles (or 7%) list an author based in the Global South as the first author.

Authors by Country

Authors based in 38 countries are represented in the journal’s articles, including 25 countries in the Global North and 13 countries in the Global South. However, seven of these Global South countries are only included as additional authors and not first authors. The UK leads the way with 45 articles, significantly more articles than any other country. All of the top 10 countries are from the Global North.

The picture changes somewhat when adjusted per capita, but the top 10 countries are still all from the Global North. This time, Norway leads the way with 26 articles per 10 million people.

Content and Themes

The analysis also categorized the articles based on the geographic focus: 140 articles focused on refugees in specific countries or regions, while 27 articles focused on more global topics. The percentages of articles focusing on each region compared to the distribution of refugees shows some interesting trends.

Europe (not including Turkey) is greatly overrepresented, with 38% of articles but hosting only 14% of the world’s refugees. These numbers include 18 articles from a special issue in December 2019 “New Perspectives on the European Refugee Crisis.” Other Global North countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, are also overrepresented in relation to the percentage of refugees they are hosting. Together, articles focusing on refugees in Europe and these three countries make up over half of articles (53%), whereas they host only one in six (16%) of the world’s refugees. In contrast, Turkey, Asia and the Pacific, and Sub-Saharan Africa are underrepresented.

Collaboration and partnership

Collaboration is common. Over half of the articles (54%) are co-authored. Collaboration within one country or across countries in the Global North is quite common, leading to 72 articles, especially within Europe (35 articles). Three articles were co-authored by people within one Global South country, but unlike in the Global North, there were no South-South collaborations across borders. There were ten co-authored articles involving both Global North and Global South actors, including authors from nine Global South countries. In cases of North-South collaboration, 70% of the time authors from the Global North were listed as the first authors.

What can we learn about research in refugee studies?

Although the Journal of Refugee Studies is not the only outlet for publishing refugee research, it is a prominent outlet and likely generally representative of the field as a whole.

First, there is a clear imbalance in knowledge production between where refugees are located (80% Global South) and where scholars are located, with 93% of single-authored articles coming from scholars based in the Global North and 93% of first authors having an institutional affiliation in the Global North. This analysis does not take into account scholars from the Global South who have immigrated or are working in the Global North, but it does highlight how in many cases, scholars from the Global South have limited access to publishing opportunities without an institutional affiliation or collaborator in the Global North.

Second, collaboration is common and over half of the articles are co-authored. However, collaboration happens mostly within one country or between countries in the Global North, with limited North-South collaboration and no articles co-authored across country lines in the Global South. Where Global South scholars are included in publications with scholars from the Global North, they are more often secondary partners in the research and not first authors.

Third, there is a thematic focus on refugees in the Global North, especially in Europe, while most refugees are located in the Global South.

Moving forward: new directions in research

The Local Engagement Refugee Research Network (LERRN) is seeking to change this imbalance in knowledge production in a variety of ways. First, LERRN’s activities focus on producing knowledge on refugees in the Global South, with partners from the Global South driving the research process and research questions. Second, a new series by McGill Queen’s University Press will promote and publish the work of refugee researchers based in the Global South. Finally, LERRN’s initiative with the International Development Research Centre aims to build sustainable research capacity on refugee issues in the Global South.

Rachel McNally is a Project Officer at LERRN, as well as second year Master’s student in the department of Political Science at Carleton University specializing in refugee resettlement policy. 

Nadeea Rahim is a Program Officer at LERRN, as well as third-year undergraduate studying a combined honours BA in Biology and Human Rights at Carleton University. 

[1] Including the Oxford Refugee Studies Series, the International Journal of Refugee Law, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Refuge, the Journal of International Migration and Integration, Routledge, McGill-Queen’s University Press Refugee and Forced Migration Series, the Berghahn Series on Forced Migration, and the Brill International Refugee Law Series.