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Exploring refugees’ experience in the Global South

Political science PhD student Mae MacDonald is using King Center funds to study how refugees are treated in Kenya and other countries.

When she began her undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford, Mae MacDonald thought she wanted to be a politician. 

She was studying philosophy, politics, and economics; had worked for her local member of Parliament; and had written a report about women’s poverty in the United Kingdom, among other accomplishments. But a course in international relations and news about the Syrian refugee crisis changed her career trajectory and interests. During her second year at Oxford in 2017, she traveled to Greece to volunteer with refugees who had arrived there hoping to travel to other countries in Europe.

mae macdonald
Mae MacDonald

“That was my first real awakening to the difficult and dangerous path refugees face leaving their countries,” she says. “I’ve continued to work on refugee policies and programs ever since.”

MacDonald later volunteered at the infamous Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, and with refugee entrepreneurs in London.

Today, MacDonald, a King Center Graduate Student Research Funding recipient working toward a PhD in political science, is studying how refugees are accommodated—or not—in the Global South. Her inquiries so far have taken her to Kenya, Uganda, and Thailand. She hopes the questions she’s asking—about why refugee groups receive disparate treatment in different countries, how refugees can successfully integrate into host countries, and how the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) functions in different locations—will eventually help governments in developing countries devise more effective refugee policies and inform academic and popular discussion on the issue.  

Mae MacDonald talking, with two other people in the background, slighlty blurred
Mae MacDonald at the enumerator training for the baseline survey of the study. Credit: Kesh Nthamba

“There’s a lot of research that already exists about [refugees in developed countries],” she says. “What frustrates me is that so much of what we know about refugees comes from those contexts and is sometimes extrapolated to refugees more broadly in ways that are inaccurate. There’s so much variation.” 

After graduating from Oxford in 2018, MacDonald worked as a researcher for YouGov in the United Kingdom, conducting online surveys, focus groups, and interviews for the government and public sector. Next, she spent time at Oxford Science Enterprises developing external relations strategies with investors and academics looking to take their scientific discoveries to market. 

“I loved interfacing with the academics setting up their companies,” she says. “But I realized I wanted to be the academic, not the person helping the academic commercialize their product.”

At Stanford, MacDonald is a Knight-Hennessy Scholar and a graduate fellow at the Immigration Policy Lab (IPL). In her work, she uses existing and original data to assess the international refugee regime and to examine refugee livelihoods in East Africa.   

With colleagues at IPL, for instance, she is helping design and evaluate a randomized control trial of Re:BUiLD, a $35 million program being implemented by the International Rescue Committee and funded by the IKEA Foundation to improve urban refugee livelihoods across East Africa. 

“I feel grateful to have the opportunity to work on a program that is tangibly improving people’s lives in the contexts where I’m doing research,” she says, and “to be able to work with an international organization that has so much on-the-ground knowledge and expertise.”

A group of about 40 people smiling at the camera
A group photo of the enumerators who helped telephone Kenyan citizens, after a training session. Credit: Kesh Nthamba

In Kenya, with support from the King Center, MacDonald is studying the impact of a 2021 law that will move refugees from camps into “integrated settlements” and improve refugees’ rights to work, move, and integrate. With IPL Executive Director Adam Lichtenheld, she is conducting a nationwide telephone survey of more than 3,000 Kenyan citizens with the goal of understanding how the public responds to refugee integration policies in the Global South. 

In part because of the dominance of surveys and research in western countries, she says, “people assume that host communities are really negative toward refugees.”

“But that’s not the case [across Kenya],” where ethnic ties can be strong between citizens and newcomers, she says.

MacDonald is also studying the international refugee regime across different regions of the world by employing a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods, including using United Nations data and machine learning techniques to understand global variation in refugee accommodation over the past two decades. Some of her early theories are that ethnic, racial, and religious similarities; economic factors such as aid and labor market demand; and bilateral relationships with refugees’ home countries can influence whether a country decides to house a particular refugee group in camps or integrate them into the social and economic fabric of society. She and a coauthor are also using novel satellite imagery tools to analyze the borders and infrastructure of refugee camps around the world.

King Center Faculty Affiliate Jeremy Weinstein says MacDonald’s work in Kenya is “exciting” and “pushes the frontiers of research on the politics and economics of migration.”

“Despite the focus of the media on North America and Europe, most refugees and asylum-seekers are concentrated in the Global South,” he says. “Mae’s research focuses on how developing countries are navigating the policy challenges posed by migration. She rightfully draws attention to Kenya’s significant, planned expansion of labor market access for refugees to help us understand how this policy liberalization came about, how it impacts the economic livelihoods of refugees and nationals, and how voters are likely to respond.”

MacDonald’s forthcoming dissertation will examine the power and influence of UNHCR in various countries. She has been conducting one-on-one interviews with policymakers and non-governmental organizations across East Africa and plans to continue that work in the Middle East. She also plans to use a WhatsApp-based survey tool (developed by the Immigration Policy Lab and the King Center’s Migration and Development Initiative) to gather input from humanitarian professionals in refugee camps, and will be looking at archival UN data to examine communications governments have had in the past with UNHCR officials around the time of refugee arrivals. 

“We think of UNHCR as this really important agency,” she explains. “But how does it have influence? Why is that influence different in different countries?”

MacDonald’s work seeks to improve academic knowledge and policy on forced migration and refugees. 

“I’m loving being able to do both at the same time,” she says. “The questions I’m asking myself now are about how I can use my academic skills to help organizations that want to improve refugees’ lives.” 

MacDonald says exploratory funding from the King Center allowed her to identify the most pressing refugee issues to work on in her research. Using that first award, she initially traveled to three countries with the idea of studying gender-based violence in camps. But her experience on that trip helped her see the importance of other questions she had not previously considered about refugee livelihoods, UNHCR’s influence, how refugees fare in different locations, and why. Her research on the 2021 Refugee Act in Kenya is funded by additional King Center support. 

“It’s so rare as a PhD student to get funding where you are able to just explore a topic you want to do research in,” she says. “The knowledge and connections I built last year enabled me to do the work I’m doing now. It really propelled my research.”