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The Student Insider

In the largest forced migration crisis on record, refugee protection experts are needed more than ever


Written by
Sophie Harrop

Over the past decade, the global refugee crisis has more than doubled in scope. In 2022, the number of refugees worldwide exceeded 30 million – surpassing what was already the highest number on record.


With ever-greater numbers of people on the move in search of security comes increasing pressure on the systems designed to protect and support them. Meeting the needs of tens of millions of refugees and ensuring that their rights are upheld is an enormous challenge.

And for those displaced, escaping persecution or danger is just the beginning of the story. The struggles faced in displacement range from difficulty integrating in a host community, to living in substandard conditions and being unable to legally work, to facing violence and discrimination.

The Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London offers a world-leading MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. The interdisciplinary degree aims to equip students with the specialist knowledge and skills needed to make a difference in the refugee and humanitarian fields.

Dr Sarah Singer is Senior Lecturer in Refugee Law at the Refugee Law Initiative and Programme Director of the fully online master's.

“At the moment we're seeing this worrying rising trend of the number of people being forcibly displaced, and at the same time there's a real lack of available solutions for displaced people,” she explains. “So now more than ever, helping to solve the challenges posed by forced displacement worldwide is incredibly important for the international global agenda.”

With the forced migration crisis constantly evolving, it’s vital that any study programme keep pace with new developments. “The programme content is updated continuously every time a module runs, and it’s updated by experienced specialists,” says Dr Singer.

We’re addressing current challenges and debates in the field – last year we introduced a brand-new module that specifically focuses on forced displacement caused by natural disasters and the effects of climate change.

The world-class academic expertise behind the programme is thanks to its home at the Refugee Law Initiative. Internationally, it is one of the leading centres focused on refugee law and forced migration; nationally, it serves as a vital hub for researchers and practitioners.

“We host a huge network of specialists in the field, which we draw on directly in the teaching of different modules and supervising research,” explains Dr Singer, “so we’re able to provide a level of specialism which simply wouldn't be possible for an on-campus programme.”

The programme gives students a strong grounding in the international law relating to the protection of displaced persons and human rights, as well as the surrounding academic debates. They then have the opportunity to specialise in a particular geographical region, like Africa or Latin America, or thematic area, such as healthcare, internal displacement or the protection of gender or sexual minorities.

There’s an emphasis on developing the practical skills needed to succeed in related careers, as well as the research skills required for further study. “We have an amazing practice-focused module called ‘Securing Refugee Protection in Practice’, which addresses the global system of refugee protection by different organisations and develops key transferrable skills – such as advocacy and fundraising – that you need to work for them,” says Dr Singer. “Alongside this we have a very strong research component: we teach students how to research in the forced migration field and they then go on to produce their own piece of research.”

This approach has proved popular with students: the programme scored a 91% approval rate in the Student Experience Survey 2021/22, with 55% of students reporting that it exceeded their expectations.

The MA can be studied flexibly from anywhere in the world, allowing students to maintain their careers alongside their studies. Indeed, a large proportion of the cohort are already working in the refugee or humanitarian fields – but, as Dr Singer emphasises, many are looking to transition into this area, and the programme is designed to support this.

We hold regular careers webinars with professionals, including current students and alumni, talking about working in different areas of the forced migration field; and we have a number of initiatives that solidify networking opportunities between the students themselves.

Among those students actively working in the field is Mahi Ramakrishnan. An award-winning investigative filmmaker and activist, she runs the non-profit organisation Beyond Borders, which works to promote and protect the rights of refugees and stateless persons in Malaysia.

With 17 years’ experience working with refugees already behind her, Mahi felt she needed to broaden her understanding and decided to look into specialist studies. “I had limited knowledge about the larger conversations that were happening globally and the many nuanced issues surrounding forced migration,” she recalls.

“I was excited when I found out about the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies because I believed it would enhance my knowledge and make me a better advocate for refugee rights, and I wasn’t disappointed.”

While working full-time alongside her studies has proved challenging at times, Mahi is already reaping the benefits. “It has been an incredible experience for me, both as an activist and academically,” she says.

I’ve learned so much and I can now bring clued-in perspectives during panel discussions. It has also helped me tremendously in my efforts to lobby the Malaysian government to look at work rights for refugees, and in understanding how protection works – or doesn’t – in the real world.

And Mahi isn’t alone: as Dr Singer attests, “Many of our students are applying their knowledge to their work while they’re studying, and later as they progress in their careers. We've had students leave us and go on to take up senior positions for the UN Refugee Agency, for example, to lead the development of an asylum system for a country that previously didn't have one.

“It's an area where we really see the impact of learning in practice.”

Find out more about the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies.