Shaivya Verma
May 9, 2019
Partition of India, 1947


Migration is a very old phenomenon in various parts of the world. Recently, forced migration has become a prominent feature in in international affairs. The decolonization process, internal conflicts, two world wars, human rights violations, authoritarian regimes, environmental disasters and large-scale development projects have all led people to displace and search for protection elsewhere. The numbers of forced migrants are increasing every year. As per UNHCR (2017), total number of migrants in early 1970s was about 2.5 million. This increased to about 18 million in 1992 to 65 million in 2017. Boat people of Vietnam migrating to other countries under compulsion in 1970s and more recently the Rohingya issue are instances of such forced migration in the Indo-Pacific region.

Forced migration is fundamentally political and international in dimension. Refugee movement involves cross-border movement and involves issues, such as the rights of citizens and non-citizens. Much of the forced migration studies have offered bottom-up perspectives while ignoring top-down approach (Betts 2009). This article tries to bring two major theories of international relations to understand the issue of forced migration.


IR theory explains the behavior of states and other domestic and international actors in world politics. Existing IR theories also attempt to explain the behavior of states towards the issue of forced migration. In this piece, neo-realism and liberal institutionalism are discussed to understand forced migration and its effect on international politics.


Neo-realism has its roots in classical realism. Classical realism argues that politics is all about power. It further argues that international politics is a result of human nature which is inherently power hungry and self-interested. Hence, states are self-interested and seek to maximize military power. Achieving order is the main emphasis of classical realists and order can only come from balance of power. Maintaining order is a big and complex challenge at international level. Hence, pursuit of power by states is the only way to order and stability.

Neo-realism, unlike classical realism, emphasizes on the interdependence among nations. But there is limit to international cooperation. Neo-realism, like classical realism, gives significance to military power and balance of power. Waltz (1979) argues that states should engage in balance of power and till balance of power between states is not maintained, peace and stability will not prevail. Betts (2009) outlines four hypotheses to understand forced migration from neo-realist perspective:

The source of forced migration is the change in the balance of power globally. For example, the First and Second World War in Europe caused the change in balance of power which led to the displacement of people in huge numbers (Morgenthau 1948). Furthermore, state creation process in the twentieth century led to the movement of people in large numbers. Hence, from realist perspective, the creation of the international refugee regime is a result of the change in the balance of power in Europe.

Forced migration is viewed from security perspective. Mainstream IR has examined the relationship between forced migrants and national security. Crisp (2003) analyses the role of refugee camps in arms trafficking. The presence of refugees in a state often lead to tensions and competition for resources with the local population (Salehyan 2007).

States provide protection to forced migrants solely for self-interested reasons. A neo-realist would expect state’s altruism to be selective and purely self-interested. States in the past have selectively funded UNHCR without compromising on their security and strategic interests (Betts 2009). Unless state’s security and strategic interests are involved, international institutions do not have much influence on the behavior of states (Betts 2009).

International cooperation is a possibility only when there is a hegemon. From neo-realist perspective, international cooperation is very limited. Hence, international cooperation is possible only when a hegemon has a strong motive in tackling issues (Betts 2009). Suhrke (1998) notes that creation of liberal admission policies for Vietnamese asylum seekers is the result of anti-communist foreign policies of states.

Liberal Institutionalism

Liberal institutionalism came in 1970s in response to neo-realism. Neo-realism could not explain international cooperation between nations. Liberalism, unlike realism which argues that states are concerned with zero-sum games, argues that states are concerned with “positive sum game”. Liberalism further argues that states are rational, power maximizers, and self-interested. Liberal institutionalism focuses on the function of international institutions. They argue that international institutions help in facilitating international cooperation. Institutions help states to act collectively which is better than working in isolation. International institutions can also help in creating provisions for states in sharing public good costs so that no states will free ride. For example, states will benefit when they share public goods costs, such as climate change mitigation (Betts 2009).

Liberal institutionalism is helpful in understanding the development of international refugee regime:

States form international institutions for mutual self-interest. Liberal institutionalists argue that states form international refugee regimes because it offers security to forced migrants by re-integrating them and also fulfil humanitarian function. Even if there are costs to states, the presence of regime would provide benefit. The refugee regimes grounded on cooperation prevent possibility of conflict.

International institutions can facilitate international cooperation and encourage states to act by creating rational incentives. The creation of international organizations and international agreements can help in keeping surveillance on the agreements and generates incentives for states to correct their behavior. For example, even though refugee regime does not have any enforcement means but monitoring role of UNHCR (Article 35 in 1951 Refugee Convention) means that states are identified as violators if they break non-refoulement norm. This means that states comply with the regime as they a) know, they will be identified as free-riders and hence other states may refuse to cooperate, and b) respect and value the existence of the international regime.


IR offers various theories to understand forced migration. Liberal institutionalism came in response to neo-realism. Neo-realism was unable to explain the increasing cooperation between states. However, liberal institutionalism has its own shortcomings and a range of alternative approaches emerged in response to rational approaches, such as English School and critical school. These approaches are outside the scope of present piece.

*** The author has PhD and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Texas at Dallas. She attended Sri Venkateswara College, the University of Delhi and received B.A. (Hons.) in Political Science before receiving M.A. in Political Science from the University of Delhi. Her dissertation focuses on migration, comparative politics, constitutions, and international relations. ***