Faculty Research Profiles


Karen Jacobsen

Karen Jacobsen is the Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration at the Fletcher School, and directs the Refugees and Forced Migration Program at the Feinstein International Center. Professor Jacobsen’s research explores urban displacement and global migration systems, with a focus on the livelihoods and financial resilience of migrants and refugees. 

Professor Jacobsen’s work focuses on the topic of global migration and explores such questions as: Why do some people uproot themselves, while their neighbors stay put? How does the experience of migration affect the migrants, their societies and relations between sending and receiving states? Are there differences between refugees and migrants? How effective are the international laws, policies and organizations that have evolved to assist and protect refugees and migrants? In particular, Jacobsen has addressed three areas: 
  • Theorizing ‘displaced livelihoods’, i.e. how refugees navigate obstacles, make decisions, obtain information, strategize their social capital (at home and abroad), deal with security threats, manage their money and pursue livelihoods; 
  • The economic, political and security impact of urban displacement, and how cities and governments respond. Jacobsen is writing a book on urban displacement in the Global South; 
  • Research methods in field settings, and how to improve our data and information given the challenges of working in conflict and displacement settings. On this topic, Professor Jacobsen has co-edited (with Dyan Mazurana and Lacey Gale), A View from Below: Conducting Research in Conflict Zones (Cambridge University Press, 2013) 

Jacobsen is currently conducting a research project called Refugees in Towns which develops case studies of how refugees become integrated in towns and cities. This project’s goal is to understand the process of immigrant integration from the ‘ground-up’ town perspective, and influence policymakers’ approaches to integration. The project also collects narratives of urban refugee and host populations, and seeks to provide guidance and information for community leaders, NGOs and local government officials in order to shape local policy. 

Jacobsen works closely with practitioners and international refugee organizations. She consults frequently with UNHCR, IRC, ICRC, Unicef and the World Bank. In 2013-2014 she was on leave from Tufts, leading the Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS) in Geneva. From 2000-2005, she directed the Alchemy Project, which explored the use of microfinance as a way to support people in refugee camps and other displacement settings. 

Jacobsen is currently updating her 2005 book, The Economic Life of Refugees (2005). She is a citizen of both South Africa and the U.S., and lives in Brookline with her son and two dogs.

Research Interests

  • Refugee and migration issues
  • Field methods, Africa
  • Humanitarian assistance, livelihoods in complex emergencies
  • Developing countries