Mission of the IASFM
(Art Hansen, 1st President of the IASFM)
Forced migration is a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (people displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.
Forced migration is distinguished from voluntary (sometimes called economic) migration by the original absence of a desire or motivation to leave the place of residence. Changes in the environment that are detrimental to the individual or collectivity deprive the collectivity (or various members of it) of security and establish new, more dangerous conditions. People who would have remained where they were under the earlier conditions now must leave or face insult, injury, imprisonment, or death. Migration becomes a means of escaping from a threatening situation, but the forced migrant is more oriented toward retention or re-establishment of past conditions than is the voluntary migrant.
The goals of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) are twofold:
(1) Promote and increase the scientific knowledge of forced migration.
(2) Advance the understanding of appropriate and effective practice concerning forced migration.
One means by which we advance these goals is by sponsoring international conferences where we meet to discuss and learn from each other's insights and experiences. We disseminate these lessons by publishing a rapporteur's summary report of each IRAP meeting in the Journal of Refugee Studies.
Members of the Association learn from and work for the benefit of people who have been forcibly displaced. We choose to meet in areas and among people affected by forced migration. The general pattern for our conferences now is that they are held in places where forced migration is a current concern, and the conferences are co-sponsored by a local host organization that is concerned about forced migration. In this way we are able to experience more closely the problems of forced migration and are also able to strengthen local organizations and our global network.
The Association is inclusive rather than exclusive. Members of the Association include policy-makers, scholars, and practitioners who work in universities, private practice, governmental and multilateral agencies, and non-governmental organizations. Except for our conferences, which are now being held once every two years, our Association is a virtual community, whose members are linked primarily by electronic messages.
The origins of the Association may be traced to a small advisory panel (the International Research and Advisory Panel on Refugees and Other Displaced Persons, or IRAP), which was created in 1990 to provide advice and assistance to the Refugee Studies Programme at the University of Oxford and to the Journal of Refugee Studies. Participants at the first IRAP meeting in Oxford in January 1990 discussed forming "an international think-tank on refugee policy and practice" that could utilize and merge the insights and perspectives of scholars and practitioners. We also tried to define a research agenda for refugee studies.
The next three IRAP meetings in 1991, 1992, and 1994 were all held in Oxford. These meetings differed somewhat in design, focus, and scale, but all combined general analyses and state-of-the-art papers with reporting on developments in the world and field during the previous year.
The 1992 meeting marked a significant change in the organization and purpose of IRAP. Until then we had been able to maintain the image of ourselves as a small advisory panel of experts, but the meeting had become too popular with scholars and practitioners. The 1992 meeting was clearly too large (144 registered participants) to be considered a small select panel. For better or worse, we had evolved into a conference. Although no longer a panel, we continue to utilize the IRAP title because it is internationally recognized and expresses our emphasis on both scholarship and practice.
The fourth meeting of IRAP in 1994 was much larger in scale, continued the evolution of our organization, and expressed a more complex vision of what we are supposed to be studying. This vision is expressed in our now using "forced migration" as the central concept rather than the more defined and restricted "refugee" term.
The most significant organizational change in 1994 was the creation by those attending the conference of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM). Although IRAP began as a panel to advise the Oxford Programme and the Journal, from the beginning the expectation had been that the IRAP group would become independent. By 1994 the body of scholars and practitioners who had been attending the IRAP meetings had formed enough of a sense of continuity and community that we believed the time had come for us to assume an independent control of IRAP.
The primary mandate of the International Association (IASFM) is to sponsor future IRAP conferences. The Fifth IRAP Conference in April 1996 was the first to be sponsored by the independent Association and the first to be held outside of Oxford. The 1996 Conference was co-sponsored and hosted by the Centre for Refugee Studies at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya.
The Sixth IRAP Conference in December 1998 was co-sponsored by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP). We chose to meet in Gaza in order to be able to meet with Palestinian refugees and learn from their experiences. At the last moment, we were displaced from Gaza by political events (the visit by U.S. President Clinton), and the conference was held in Jerusalem. Displacement like this is something that our Palestinian hosts experience every day.
Meeting in Jerusalem, and experiencing first-hand the ancient and yet completely modern struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis, triggered a change in how I perceived the realities of our times. We live in an age of advanced technology. We communicate using electronic mail (e-mail), web-pages, cell phones, and satellite linkages. We are now building a space station in preparation for travel - and perhaps migration - to other planets, and perhaps other stars. This is a time of cyberspace and virtual reality. In keeping with this, our Association is a virtual community, linked primarily by electronic messages and meetings.
These new realities, potentials, and opportunities are real and exciting. They offer new avenues for humanity to explore and for scholars to study. But we should not be blinded by the glamour and the glitter. We should not lose sight of the continued importance of ancient realities and deceptively simple concepts.
Look around Jerusalem at the realities of ancient stones. Look around Jerusalem and Israel at olive groves, hilltops, and settlements. Listen, feel, and hear passions and the sounds of symbols clashing. Pride and humiliation, words and rubber bullets, stones and symbols, power and passion - all are real and elemental.
Some insights and realities are fundamental and simple to explain. Let me illustrate this by using the signs from a game that children play. They use three simple signs - a closed fist means a rock; an open palm means paper; and separated fingers means scissors. Paper covers rock. Scissors cut paper. Rock covers scissors.
ROCK. There is the fundamental importance of material objects and biological existence. We ride a rock around the sun. The stones of homes and temples. The dirt of fields. Animals and plants exist as populations. There is our own animal existence - our need to eat and breathe, the hair growing from our bodies. We bleed, grow old, and die.
PAPER (paper covers rock). Symbols and sentiments, meanings and memories are as real as rocks. They have a different quality of existence but are equally important. Dirt and stones can be enveloped in memory and meaning, in sentiment and symbol. Dirt and stones thus transformed become our lands, our homes, our countries. A human population enveloped in shared memories and meanings becomes an identity, a community, perhaps a people or nation.
SCISSORS (scissors cut paper). Historical events can rend and tear the fabric of social life. Conflicts and wars, massacres and famines, pestilence and plagues can cause death, destruction, and displacement.
ROCK (rock covers scissors). Disasters rarely are total. Stones and dirt remain. There are usually biological survivors. Individuals and populations can survive most conflicts and wars, even most genocides.
PAPER (paper covers rock). But biological existence and survival does not ensure social and cultural survival. Throughout the millennia that humans have been riding this rock around the sun, many peoples and nations have disappeared. Where are the Anasazi? Where are the Phoenicians? Where are the people of Greater Zimbabwe and the people of Troy?
This metaphor of rock, scissors, and paper illustrates the complexity of the interplay between biology, conflict, culture, and identity. This complexity is the focus of our study and work. Social and cultural identities often survive, but people's shared symbols and sentiments, memories and meanings, may be reinvigorated or transformed, modified or mutated.
A small example of this is our Association. Our community scattered between April 1996 when we were in Eldoret, Kenya, and December 1998, when we met again in Jerusalem. We regrouped there to revive our memories, share our symbols and sentiments, and welcome others who wished to join with us.
Two large examples surrounded us in Jerusalem - Palestine and Israel. Jews and Palestinians have suffered many disasters and experienced massive displacement. Yet there they are, contesting dirt and stones -- symbols, sentiments, and space -- lands, homes, and identities.
There is a saying that an expert is an ordinary person a long way from home. In that sense, all of us at the IRAP Conference who came from afar were experts. Although we may be considered experts, we had not come there to teach or preach about these fundamental realities and fundamental passions that the people living there know and experience daily. Instead, we came to learn from other people there and to share our experiences and ideas.
The Eight Biennial Conference of the IASFM will be held in January 2003 in Thailand. We hope that you will join us there.