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FEATURE STORY January 13, 2022

Walking in Migrants’ Shoes

"When you actually understand that you could yourself be a migrant, a forced migrant, then maybe you would be more compassionate towards those individuals."
Sandra V. Rozo
Research Economist, Development Research Group

Sandra V. Rozo is a research economist in Development Research Group who studies forcibly displaced populations and migrants.

What is the focus on your research?

My research focuses on understanding forced displacement, specifically in the global South. This is where 85% of refugee populations are hosted, and even more for internally displaced populations. Recently, I have been primarily studying Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and Syrian refugee populations in Jordan and Turkey.

I have three objectives: to understand how forced migration flows impact host countries—in terms of economic, social, and political outcomes. The second objective is to examine which humanitarian interventions support refugees more effectively, and the third, to explore policies and programs that can facilitate migrants' integration.

What sparked your interest in this research?

I grew up in Colombia, where I saw forced displacement firsthand when I was a young girl. You could see rural migrants in the streets of every main city moving because of the internal armed conflict. Migrants were visible for some time and then, after a few years, we did not see them as much. I always wondered what happened to them. Where are they? Are they alright? Did they go back to rural areas? Are they fully integrated in urban areas?

What have been some most interesting findings?

Let me talk about three main areas of work:

In joint work with Ana María Ibáñez (Inter-American Development Bank), Andrés Moya (Universidad de los Andes), María Urbina (World Bank), and with field support from IPA Colombia, we are examining the impacts of a large amnesty program of irregular Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. We are examining what impacts these types of initiatives have had on migrants' life outcomes, local labor markets, political perceptions, and social cohesion.

The results are beautiful. We have been able to document that the amnesty program has had a small impact on local labor markets but large positive effects for migrants. Migrants have more welfare, more consumption, more income, and better health as a result of the amnesty. They feel more integrated where they live. They also have better access to safety nets, such as health services. This has been an impactful project that, I believe, will facilitate migrants' self-reliance.

The second area focuses on trying to create good representative data for these populations. The idea is to create longitudinal panels to follow migrants over time and see how different programs and different political/public decisions affect them. This is hard to set up because these populations are highly mobile, and it is difficult to find them. Also, they are afraid of offering information and many are afraid of institutions because they have been victims of all sorts of political and social persecution.

In Colombia, we spent many hours refining our design and approach.  In the end, we hired Venezuelan enumerators who could contact migrants more compassionately, which dramatically increased response rates. We also did a big dissemination effort within their local communities, specifically with local organizations and through local WhatsApp groups explaining to them that it would OK to work with us. You can read more about this work in this blog post on Tips for collecting surveys of hard-to-reach populations.

For Syrian refugees in Jordan, I am working in a team led by Edward Miguel (University of California, Berkeley). Our objective is to collect a representative panel of Syrian refugees and follow them throughout their lives. The idea is to see how their lives evolve, what different decisions they make, and how programs that they are exposed to change their lives. Even if they leave Jordan, we plan to follow them.

Finally, the third area is the most recent part of my research. It tries to understand how we can reduce sentiments of xenophobia that you see in all countries that have seen large flows of migrants.  For example, what happens if you try to offer the perspective of a migrant to locals in a host country? We show people a documentary about the experiences that migrants have gone through or make them play a game where they are a migrant and have to decide what to do. These activities dramatically change how people perceive migrants and increase locals' altruism towards these populations.

What are you reading? 

I read a lot, but lately most of my reading is through audiobooks while I run as I have two small children. I am listening to two books at the moment. One is called Misbehaving by Richard Thaler and the other is The Wealth of Refugees by Alexander Betts. Another book that I am looking forward to reading—it will be released in May 2022—is Streets of Gold by Leah Boustan and Ran Abramitszky.

Of World Bank policy research working papers, many of my favorites are written by colleagues that I admire tremendously in the Development Economics Research Department such as David McKenzieQuy-Toan Do, and Çağlar Özden.