The Scope of Displacement: Reading the Watson Institute Working Paper

By USCRI September 14, 2020

Last week, a working paper from the Watson Institute at Brown University made a small stir in the immigration advocacy community. The paper’s hook is that U.S. military interventions are responsible for huge numbers of displacements: “at least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the U.S. military has launched or participated in since 2001.” Its data derives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), both considered high quality sources. As such, these findings should not be dismissed out of hand. The Watson Institute paper’s claim is large and important, which makes the paper is worth scrutinizing. The paper is also written in the norms of academic social science, which may be less familiar to some readers. This issue brief explains how to interpret and generalize academic research taking the Watson Institute paper as a case study. The Watson Institute paper partially substantiates its claims: it gives that U.S. military actions have precipitated the flights of more than 4.5 million refugees and 18 million displaced persons in total. That some claims are not adequately substantiated does not imply that the full claim—37 million people displace—is false. But as this brief will explain, the approach that the researchers take is one of several valid methods available.

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