Interview with David Cantor on the Master of Arts in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies

20 January 2017

PHAP recently added to its member affinity program the University of London's distance learning Master of Arts in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. Members of PHAP can now receive bursary of 10% on all fees for this graduate program. (NOTE: The application deadline for the March 2017 intake is 1 February)

The MA program, designed and run by the University of London’s Refugee Law Initiative, aims to provide a rigorous theoretical and practical understanding of the fields of international refugee law and protection of forcibly displaced persons.

In this context, we had the pleasure to further discuss about this new program and affiliation with David Cantor, Director of the Refugee Law Initiative, and Sarah Singer, Director of the MA program.


1) What was it that prompted the creation of the Refugee Law Initiative and the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies? 

When I started as a new lecturer in 2009, the absence of an academic centre dedicated to refugee law was quite striking. After consulting with other refugee law scholars, in 2011 we managed to establish a small centre at the School of Advanced Study in order to provide a dedicated platform to facilitate and promote research on refugee law. Initially focused in London and the UK, the Refugee Law Initiative has grown to have an international reach and involves both scholars and practitioners working on refugee law and refugee studies.

In a similar way, the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies also responds to a perceived gap in the field, this time in postgraduate teaching. Up until its launch in 2014, aspiring students who lacked the time, money or opportunity to attend the few existing on-campus refugee studies programmes were left without access to postgraduate study in the refugee field. Our MA programme aims to make postgraduate education in this field accessible to as broad as possible a range of people, including those already working in the field and wherever in the world they may be based. 


2) Why did you decide to offer this program as a distance learning program? 

All too frequently, aspiring students cannot simply uproot themselves and move to a different country or city in order to study. Ongoing professional and family commitments at home, as well as the financial, immigration and practical barriers to moving to an expensive country like the UK, help to explain the growing popularity of distance-learning modes of study. These challenges are often accentuated for people working under pressurised conditions in the humanitarian field.

The distance-learning format of our MA has helped to open up postgraduate learning opportunities in this field to a wider demographic of people. This demand is reflected in the fact that we are now the largest programme on refugee studies and forced migration in the world. Moreover, our students work in their professional lives in the midst of a range of different refugee crises across the globe, which means that some amazing peer-to-peer learning takes place. As well as democratising access to this field for students, the distance-learning format also allows us to bring in specialist input from expert tutors who are located all over the world, rather than having to rely just on those who happen to be living in London.


3) What does the curriculum of the MA Programme focus on? 

The MA aims to offer a well-rounded interdisciplinary postgraduate education in the field. Two compulsory core modules cover: social science approaches to refugees and forced migration; and fundamentals of legal protection for such persons. Students then specialise by choosing four from a choice of eight focused elective modules (including gender, IDPs, statelessness, practice etc.). The taught modules not only give students a solid theoretical and practical understanding of refugee protection and forced migration, but also develop their transferable skills such as the ability to think and write critically and to contribute effectively in both academic and professional environments.

The MA curriculum also encourages independent research. Students participate throughout the MA in a research methods course. This builds towards a final research dissertation on a topic of their choice in the forced migration field. Many students chose to focus their dissertation project on a topic relevant to their professional work. Indeed, students have produced some remarkable pieces of research on topics not always readily accessible to students undertaking 'traditional' on-campus study, including a recent survey-based field study of IDP camps in South Sudan. 


4) Why do you think this program is relevant for PHAP members and other humanitarian practitioners? 

Humanitarian crises inevitably produce refugee flows and other forced migrations, often on a considerable scale and generating pressing protection and assistance needs. On a regular basis, humanitarian practitioners thus find themselves working with displaced persons or issues of forced migration, whether as a core part of their mission or consequentially. However, the refugee field can seem extremely complex, not only in the diverse empirical dynamics and implications of displacement but also in the panoply of applicable laws, institutions and policies.

Against this backdrop of global refugee flows, our MA provides humanitarian workers with the key tools - legal, practical and analytical - to understand and effectively respond to the needs of forcibly displaced persons. It is ideal both for those who wish to move into working with refugees and for those who desire further professional development in order to advance their career in that field. The quality of this internationally-recognised University of London postgraduate qualification travels as well as any globe-trotting PHAP member or humanitarian practitioner.


5) Do you have any examples of how students have made use of their studies?

Having launched only in 2014, we are greatly looking forward to seeing our first cohort of students graduating at the next University of London graduation ceremony in March (2017). Many of those students have secured new roles in global institutions such as UNHCR. There are also some who see the MA as a good pathway to continuing PhD study. Whatever the career, we are pleased to help to support all of these forms of professional development and have also been busy recently creating a new alumni network to connect graduating students with those studying on the programme.

What is equally exciting are the many ways in which our students have been able to use their acquired knowledge and skills during the programme to impact positively on their professional work with refugees. For example, our students have reported employing the knowledge and skills they have gained to help better serve migrants and refugees in detention in Mexico and Central America on behalf of the ICRC; establish and run an NGO assisting refugees and asylum seekers in Poland; and advocate on behalf of refugees in Malawi as part of their work for UNHCR.


You can read more on the member affinity program page.