Faculty Research Profiles


Karen JacobsenKaren Jacobsen has been devoted to exploring the motivations and livelihoods of migrants across the globe since leaving her native South Africa in 1979.

“I myself left South Africa for political reasons in the late 1970s, and I’m interested in exile and displacement,” Jacobsen says. “At the time I finished my Ph.D. at MIT in 1992, there wasn’t much research being done on refugees and refugee policy. That field of study has grown since then, and I’ve become more interested both in it and in the methodology behind it.”

In her first book, The Economic Life of Refugees, released by Kumarian Press in June 2005, Jacobsen explores how refugees pursue livelihoods. “It is about how people survive and even thrive in different places – in camps, in urban areas, in countries where they’ve resettled,” Jacobsen explains. “It also explores how humanitarian assistance can support their efforts.”

Jacobsen, who teaches several migration-related courses at Fletcher, is an integral member of the Feinstein International Famine Center. As director of the Center’s Refugees & Forced Migration Program, she heads the ongoing Alchemy Project, which “explores the possibility of using microcredit to support refugees and IDPs in Africa.”

Jacobsen recently authored a three-year report on the microcredit initiative and its potential for income generation among refugees and IDPs. Currently, data from the project’s Ugandan component is being drawn up into findings and will soon appear in a publication entitled “Supporting IDPs with Microcredit: Lessons from an IDP Camp in Lira, Northern Uganda,” which will be co-authored by Akua Ofori-Adjei (MALD 2006) and Jane Kenbabazi (MALD 2005).

In conjunction with the Famine Center’s Helen Young, author of Darfur: Livelihoods Under Siege, Jacobsen is also working on a research project that explores the relationship between conflict, migration, and remittances in Darfur, Sudan. In spring of 2006, Jacobsen and Young will travel to Darfur to test the project’s methodology. Later, the team will link up with the Famine Center’s Dyan Mazurana, to include the conflict zone of northern Uganda.

“We know that remittances – when migrants send money and goods back to their home countries – are a very important livelihoods support,” Jacobsen says. “Our research will include recommendations to policymakers about how to support remittance mechanisms.”

In recent years, the US government has sought to block some of the informal money transfer networks, especially in countries that are seen as terrorist sympathizers – including Sudan. “We want to look at the impact of these kinds of developments on how people survive in conflict zones,” Jacobsen says. “This means we will also conduct research amongst the Sudanese diaspora in other parts of Africa and in the US and Europe, to see how their remittance-sending has been affected.”

Outside of the Famine Center, Jacobsen is also working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a leading refugee advocacy and service NGO, on a survey of Burmese migrants in Thailand. In the 10 years since the Burmese civil conflict erupted, many Burmese have fled to Thai refugee camps, and after the Thai government stopped granting refugee status, additional Burmese crossed the border under a legalized migrant labor program.

“We’re interested in understanding how many might qualify as refugees if they applied for status in Thailand,” Jacobsen says. “And more broadly, we are exploring how the Burmese migrants survive in Thailand.”

Jacobsen is also leading a study of refugees in three African cities – Johannesburg, Maputo, and Nairobi – to explore the differences in the experiences of nationals and migrants who live as the urban poor in the inner city. The focus of the research, Jacobsen says, is to ask, “Are migrants and refugees worse off, or able to cope better, than urban nationals?”

This research is being conducted in collaboration with the Forced Migration Studies program at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa (Jacobsen’s undergraduate alma mater), the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, and the Center for Population Studies at the University Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, Mozambique.