Essential Readings on Refugees and Forced Displacement

Essential Readings on Refugees and Forced Displacement

[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author.Articles such as this will appear permanently on and Email us at for any inquiries.]

On World Refugee Day each year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) publishes its Global Trends report, announcing the number of “persons of concern” in the world today. As of June 2021, UNHCR reported 82.4 million forcibly displaced persons, the highest ever in UNHCR’s seventy-year history. This population is made up of refugees (twenty-six million) and internally displaced persons, who are almost twice that number at forty-eight million.[1] Three-quarters of the overall total are living in what are labelled situations of “protracted displacement,” meaning they have been displaced for more than five years. These statistics show that displacement is not only a pressing issue today, but one that our global political system has failed to address over time. Nearly one quarter of the overall total are either from or living in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Some of the best material for understanding the breadth and depth of displacement frames the refugee movements in historical, political, environmental, social, legal, and economic contexts. This type of writing contrasts with the reports by aid providers or policy work, which are more descriptive and largely written about certain issues faced by a particular population at a particular moment. Academic and long-form journalistic pieces cover issues such as why displacement occurred; what people experience prior to and during displacement; the global inequalities that make people vulnerable; the key factors in why refugees are located where they are; the host community dynamics; or the needs and aspirations of the displaced. Humanitarian aid agencies may argue that such information is irrelevant to the primary work of putting food in people’s hands and roofs over their heads. However, knowing the contextual information about the refugees and their aspirations undoubtedly makes for better aid work and policy as well as for thinking about the durable solutions of return, resettlement, or integration proposed by the international refugee regime.

I have researched and published on the subject, and I have taught courses specifically on refugees and displacement for over fifteen years. Thus, in choosing the works for this Essential Readings list, I have selected contextual works that illuminate, at best sometimes only partially, how refugees and the internally displaced navigate their worlds, as well as the politics and policies that have determined their situations. Displaced persons are subjected to violence, borders, aid regimes, hospitality, charity, and compassion, among other things. These contextual works also frame displaced people as active participants: people who strive to have the ability to decide, consider, and think, people who have emotions, skills, needs, and a future. This framing of refugee-centered texts is the acknowledged bias in my selection.

Ultimately, a refugee-centered view makes for a better approach to understanding the concerns and needs of displaced communities. As we know from the news, humanitarian aid cannot stand in for solutions to the political violence and policies that caused displacement in the first place. We need more political approaches to solve the political causes of displacement that push to provide safety and stability for those in danger. When displacement happens, displaced populations cannot be addressed as a crisis that can be solved by humanitarian aid and host government policies. They are in crisis, but the crisis is what displaced them. A refugee-centered view keeps those most affected within the visioning of solutions. And as we look toward a future with more displacement caused by climate change, environmental policies, and mismanagement, we need to carry with us the lessons of current studies: the displaced are not the problem, rather the conditions, politics, and policies are the problems that need to be focused on and addressed.[2]

There are many excellent texts and I could not include them all. Many of them I use in teaching which gives me perspective on how they are received by others. I have also tried to offer mostly academic texts along with different genres to provide a window into how refugee stories are told and published. Organizationally, this essay is structured around themes that are relevant to the study of displacement. There is not consistency across subjects and areas, so some of these themes are more well developed than others.


Refugee written/driven narratives are essential to reading about displacement. If I could only read or assign one book it would be this one: Shahram Khosravi’s ‘Illegal’ Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders (Palgrave, 2010). (He also has a 2007 article of the same name in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 15, no. 3, 321–34). The book (and article) offer a lyrical and searing account of displacement in the contemporary world, framed by Khosravi’s own refugee journey as a young man fleeing Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and interwoven with the academic theorization he brings as a professor. His first-person narrative that brought him to Sweden illustrates the border regimes that inform daily struggles, the smugglers, thieves, and saviors, and the actions of persons deemed “illegal” by global governments. Theoretically sophisticated and interwoven with his research on a global collection of refugees and migrants, he explores the topics of rights, citizenship, borders, and the body. Every student who reads this work remembers it and brings it back up repeatedly; it provides an important reality check on the rights promised in the global refugee regime.

A beautifully written (and translated) account of refugee-hood and return is the late poet Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (AUC Press, 2000, translated by Ahdaf Souef; original publication in رايت رام الله 1997). Barghouti, a Palestinian from the West Bank who was studying in Egypt at the time of the 1967 war, was not allowed to return home, and was subsequently deported from Egypt. The book describes his life and family over the intervening thirty years, and his experience of returning to visit Ramallah.

Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi artist who ultimately settles in the United States, describes his own history of displacement through an art project he undertakes that engages Americans in his position and story: Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun (City Lights, 2008, and Kari Lydersen).

Edited from hundreds of accounts told by Syrian refugees displaced in the Middle East and Europe, Wendy Pearlman’s They Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled (HarperCollins, 2017) allows those displaced to tell what they experienced in Syria’s uprising and civil war and why they fled. It reads well with Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (Pluto Press, 2018), which provides more of the political and historical framing for the events experienced by the interlocutors in Pearlman’s book.

The internet-based graphic novel, Meet the Somalis, is a collection of fourteen illustrated stories depicting the experiences of Somalis in seven cities in Europe (2013). Each story distills the challenges and successes of different generations of refugees as they work, meet their neighbors, and thrive. The rise in graphic novels about refugees, particularly by and about Syrians, offer those who are more visual learners a chance to immerse themselves in the stories.


Making sense of the United Nations (UN) Conventions (and responsibilities of signatories, etc.), the Global Compact, and other legal and normative apparatuses helps us understand the frameworks in which people’s lives are governed and constrained. Alexander Betts’ article, “The Normative Terrain of the Global Refugee Regime,” Ethics and International Affairs no. 29.4 2015 covers many of the issues facing refugees today, as well as the norms and policies of states. Reading it with the UN Refugee Convention from 1951 provides a stark illustration of the huge gap between the codification of refugee rights and responsibilities and the dismal situation of rightlessness and privation today.

New ways to think about displacement, rights, citizenship, and humanitarianism further illustrate the logics and limitations of defining humans by citizenship status (or lack thereof) and carceral politics. A. Naomi Paik’s work on “rightlessness” goes straight to the heart of what displaced persons encounter. She elucidates the subject in her book by that title, Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps Since World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), but this short interview with her works well for students to get the ideas she proposes: Public Thinker: A. Naomi Paik on a Future Without Rights (10 January 2020). Alexander Betts poses new ways to think about displacement, including economic and environmental refugees who do not fall under the definition of the 1951 Refugee Convention, in his work on “survival migration.” See his book, Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement (Cornell University Press, 2013) or the article, “Survival Migration: A New Protection Framework,Global Governance 16, no. 3 (2010), 361-82.


Displaced persons often need immediate assistance to survive and to rebuild the networks of their lives. How this assistance is organized, provided, and approached is the theme of a number of different authors.

Twenty-year old articles by the late Barbara Harrell-Bond, while not focused on the MENA, delve critically into refugees as objects of humanitarian aid and development and help show how even if practices have changed, the general approach of charitable benevolence remains dominant. See her articles, “The Experience of Refugees as Recipients of Aid,” in Refugees: Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migrationedited by Alastair Agar (London: Pinter, 1999): 136-68, and “Can Humanitarian Work with Refugees be Humane?” Human Rights Quarterly 24, no. 1 (2002), 51-85. A contemporary take on the subject in the case of Syrian refugees is in Nell Gabiam’s article, “Humanitarianism, Development, and Security in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Syrian Refugee Crisis,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48, no. 2 (2016) 382-86. The important assessment of humanitarian aid work is conveyed by Ayah Al-Oballi in “Our Silenced Voices: What we Lose While Working with International ‘Humanitarian’ Organizations,” translated from Arabic and appearing in the e-zine 7ibr (January 2020).

Similarly, Ilana Feldman’s body of anthropological and historical research illustrates the limits of terminology, labels, and humanitarian discourse endured by Palestinians, both as refugees and hosts, in her award-winning article, “Difficult Distinctions: Refugee Law, Humanitarian Practice, and Political Identification in Gaza,” Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 1 (2007), 129-70. Complemented by her article, “Gaza’s Humanitarianism Problem,” Journal of Palestine Studies 38, no. 3 (2009), 22-37, Feldman cogently and coherently shows how Gaza’s humanitarian crises are the result of political choices and actions and Israeli embargos and policies. Her work provides a specific example of the overall problem of providing humanitarian solutions to political problems.


Catherine Besteman’s Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine 
(Duke, 2016) is a beautifully written explication of Somali community life prior to the civil war as well as in Kenyan refugee camps and resettled in Maine. An excellent chapter, “The Humanitarian Condition,” (chapter two) describes the US refugee resettlement policies; it both stands alone as a chapter and reads very well with the later chapters about how the host city in Maine navigates the system and their own anti-Black and anti-Muslim prejudices. Somalia’s civil war started in 1991, and since then the country has been battered by internal fighting and external interventions. Somalis number over two million internally displaced and well over a million refugees, in addition to those previously resettled in Europe and the United States. Besteman explores how communities are built amidst tensions over aid and assimilation in an economically struggling former mill-town in Maine. Tracing debates about security, responsibility, education, health, and employment, Besteman illustrates how being African, Muslim, and a refugee is constructed in the United States. She contrasts this with her knowledge of these communities in Somalia prior to the civil war, who faced discrimination in Somalia as “Bantu” a status that ultimately allowed for some to be resettled. Told through family histories, the book illustrates decades of political violence, death, societal change, and movement endured by families and their descendants, who are now living in Maine and who challenge the image that has been constructed about them in the United States based on these histories.

Similarly, the family stories of Iraqis displaced due to the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein is the subject of Zainab Saleh’s Return to Ruin: Iraqi Narratives of Exile and Nostalgia (Stanford, 2020). By focusing on how these exiled Iraqis remember the past and look to the future, Saleh shares the unsettled longing and hopefulness of people’s connections to place and time.


Enduring and surviving now over seventy years of displacement, Palestinian refugees are the subjects of more books and articles than any other refugee population. The UN records 5.6 million registered Palestinian refugees today, but that number does not include an estimated one million plus who are not registered.[3] Palestinians’ status in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq is often cited by host governments as the case of what not to do—whether that is give them citizenship or even allow them to be registered as refugees. Absent from host country discourses is any mention of their contributions to economies, societies, or national life; instead they are positioned as guests and expected to be grateful for being hosted.

Anaheed Al-Hardan takes on the subject of how Palestinian refugees are positioned as objects of study in the global north, and she proposes needed changes in her article, “Decolonizing Research on Palestinians: Towards Critical Epistemologies and Research Practices,” Qualitative Inquiry 20, no. 1 (2014), 61–71. Her book, Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities, (Columbia, 2016), takes on the issue of refugee rights, both before and during the uprising in Syria. Her work captures generational change among activist communities, their ways of thinking about their homeland, and their pursuit of UN-granted rights. Her analysis also engages with how Palestine and Palestinians have been used since the 1960s by the heads of Arab states who, while paying lip service to Palestine, have used their budgets to buy weapons and build bigger armies that have been turned against their own populations.

A number of older books address Palestinians’ histories as refugees in rich historical and analytical depth, providing models for refugee-centered research work. Rosemary Sayigh’s Too Many Enemies (Zed Books, 1994) and Julie Peteet’s Landscape of Hope and Despair (UPenn, 2009) read together provide the long-term picture of what being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon means over multiple decades and generations. Both scholars’ research began in the 1970s and thus their analyses and perspectives provide a long durée that few other scholars can offer. Diana Allen’s monograph, Refugees of the Revolution: Experiences of Palestinian Exile (Stanford, 2014), updates their work, with a perceptive eye to the current concerns of Palestinians in Lebanon as does Laleh Khalili’s Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Oroub El-Abed explores how Palestinians navigated changing regimes and politics in her book, Unprotected: Palestinians in Egypt Since 1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2009).


An enduring trope in refugee advocacy is framing women and children as “vulnerable” and in need of help, which conversely assumes that other refugees are not vulnerable, particularly not men. One day we will embrace a more nuanced understanding of vulnerability and refugees; until then, we have a number of excellent academic studies that address gender more realistically and accurately. Anthropologist Rogaia Abusharaf’s monograph about Sudanese and South Sudanese women living in Khartoum, Transforming Displaced Women in Sudan: Politics and the Body in a Squatter Settlement (UChicago, 2009), illuminates how women navigate displacement and peacemaking as individuals and living in communities. Written before the referendum and creation of South Sudan in 2011, her work allows these women to present their lives, revealing how they transform themselves, hold on to certain practices that give them meaning, and adopt new ones. These situations of prolonged displacement and tragedy that the women narrate illustrate the losses faced by Sudanese in the decades of civil war and why some South Sudanese may not want or be able to return.

While there is no doubt that displacement disrupts social structures, how displaced persons have remade their communities illustrates changing gender roles and political strategies. The prominent role of women refugees from the Western Sahara are so often cited (with surprise) as somehow atypical of refugee populations (particularly those from the Middle East/North Africa). Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s book, The Ideal Refugees: Gender, Islam, and the Sahrawi Politics of Survival (Syracuse University Press, 2014), addresses the Sahrawi refugee situation more generally and how the refugees themselves have managed their image, aided by those in solidarity with them.

A few recent publications about forced migrants discuss gender as also concerning men. Lewis Turner’s work on Syrian refugee men and humanitarian policies, “The Politics of Labeling Refugee Men as ‘Vulnerable’,” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 28, no. 1 (2021), 1-23, argues that using terms like “vulnerability” to describe men (as it is used to describe women and children) leads to greater “humanitarian control over, and racialized violence toward, refugee men themselves.” Two pieces on the subject of Syrian refugee men that are not behind paywalls include Lewis Turner’s piece, Are Syrian Men Vulnerable Too? Gendering The Syria Refugee Response (2016), and this 2014 short piece titled, Gender, Conscription and Protection, and the War in Syria by Rochelle Davis, Abbie Taylor and Emma Murphy.


A number of scholarly works provide well-researched perspectives on the lives of Jews who lived in the Middle East that were uprooted in the 1950s (and avoid the propagandizing messaging in much of what an internet search will offer). In particular, Orit Bashkin’s Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel (Stanford University Press, 2017) and Joel Beinin’s The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (University of California Press, 1998) tell these communities’ histories. The work of Yehouda Shenhav in his article, “The Jews of Iraq, Zionist Ideology, and the Property of the Palestinian Refugees of 1948: An Anomaly of National Accounting,” IJMES 31 (1999), 605-30, details how Zionist leaders determined approaches to Iraqi Jews in the context of the creation of Israel and the Palestinian population and their property. A wonderful film on the subject of Iraqi Jews living in Israel is Forget Baghdad, directed by Samir in 2002 (1hour, 51 min).


The Middle East and North Africa has not only produced refugees but has also hosted them, a history that is often not remembered today. The famous American movie Casablanca (1942) is a popular culture reference to one such era. A readable (or listen to-able) account of this history appeared in a 2016 Public Radio International’s “The World” Segment by Evan Taparata and Kuang Keng Kuek Ser titled, “During WWII, European Refugees Fled to Syria. Here’s what the Camps were Like.

Egypt and Jordan have hosted displaced populations for more than a century, including Armenian, Circassian, European, Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian communities among others. (See the article by Rochelle Davis, Grace Benton, Will Todman, and Emma Murphy, “Hosting Guests, Creating Citizens: Models of Refugee Administration in Jordan and Egypt,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 36, no. 2 (2017), 1-32). Jordan in particular is an interesting case study because it historically gave citizenship to displaced persons. Dawn Chatty’s book on Syria, Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State (Oxford University Press, 2018), details Syria as a host country from the Ottoman period to the present and uses interviews collected over decades of research, and illustrates how the openness of Syrians in the past are a painful contrast to the reception they are receiving today. Alia Malek’s Enduring ExileA Family’s Journey from Armenia to Syria and Back Again,” (Guernica, October 2013) tells the stories of Armenian victims of the Ottoman genocides who rebuilt their lives in Syria, and who, a century later, are forced to flee again.


I conclude this very long essay acutely aware of many gaps, including refugee communities made up of Kurds, Armenians, Algerians held in camps and removed from their villages during the French Occupation, Yemenis today, Afghans in Iran, Somalis in Yemen, Sudanese from Darfur, South Sudanese, among many others. Consider this an invitation to mention exceptional texts on these and other subjects in the comments below, to address those topics in a similar essay, or to take them on as research projects.


[1] Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are those displaced living within the borders of their country, but are not in their homes due to war, conflict, environmental factors, persecution, or other reasons.

[2] An article that sounds the alarm for impending “climate colonialism” is Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò’s, “The Green New Deal and the Danger of Climate Colonialism,” Slate, March 1, 2019.

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