The Simulationist’s Dual Identity
By Erika F. Frydenlund
From the outside, I have a dual identity: simulationist and researcher of forced migration. I build computer simulations of all kinds of social phenomena, but my passion is researching the political and social situations of refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and internally displaced to understand how we can bring an end to the prolonged uncertainty of displacement. I believe in qualitative research—interviews and participant observation with refugees, aid workers, and the representatives of governments and organizations who hold the fate of millions in their hands are all necessary to grasp the lived reality of those forced from their homes. From my perspective, my identity isn’t dual at all. Simulation and qualitative research go hand-in-hand, with each grounding the other in a way that can provide insights other approaches can’t.
Kiziba Refugee Camp, Rwanda: In operation continuously since 1996
During my fieldwork in Rwanda, a refugee told me that he felt that eating the same food every single day—rations of corn, beans, salt, and oil—for twenty years in the camp was a “death sentence.” I heard the same story over and over, and it really made me question my role as a researcher. I’m not a diplomat. I’m not working for any of the large aid organizations that can lobby for refugees. But, the number of refugees is at an all-time high—nearly 66 million people displaced globally, 22.5 million refugees in foreign lands—and the average time spent in exile is over 20 years. That’s generations of people born into refugee situations knowing no other life. This is a problem that requires all kinds of minds to understand and contribute solutions—even simulationists.
a refugee told me that he felt that eating the same food every single day—rations of corn, beans, salt, and oil—for twenty years in the camp was a “death sentence.”
In the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe, a number of engineers have begun development of simulation approaches to various aspects of refugee response. At VMASC, we’re currently developing a model of internal displacement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a model of humanitarian response on the island of Lesvos, Greece, and a model of the health impacts of spending decades in a refugee camp. The larger question, however, is whether simulation even has a place in policymaking. Change for the globally displaced has to come from the macro-international policy level as well as micro-nongovernmental organization and local host community levels. We must address the causes and consequences of flight, as well as the daily impacts on individuals forced from their homes.
Where does simulation fit into all of this? Is there a high risk of our models being used for xenophobic policies to keep refugees and other migrants out? How can we ethically monitor the outcome of our research when it is dynamic and designed to be used as a tool for decision-makers beyond our supervision? Refugee studies has long debated what scholars in the field call the “dual imperative,” or the responsibility for all refugee research to result in actionable policy outcomes. I believe modeling and simulation has a role, but it is a complicated role and entirely dictated by the context of the model and the desires of those planning to use the simulation. Maybe some models serve their purpose simply to ground policy dialogue, rather than for an objective means of making decisions.
Refugee Camp Simulation Visualization
Joshua Epstein wrote an article, Why Model?¸which proposes a number of alternative reasons beyond prediction to build models. I think the answer to whether modeling and simulation has a place in forced migration-related policymaking lies somewhere in the combination of these non-predictive reasons to model. Prediction may help with logistics supply chain problems for allocating humanitarian resources and aid. But, for the rest of the nuanced and complex problems of forced migration, the use of simulation for policymaking is tricky. We use it to bring people from all aspects of humanitarian aid—volunteers, professional aid workers, refugees, UN representatives, and locals—to the same table to view the many angles of humanitarian crisis and response.
Models provide a means to think more thoroughly through complex problems to hopefully see something we haven’t before.
Models provide a means to think more thoroughly through complex problems to hopefully see something we haven’t before. Simulation can help work through “what-if” scenarios and plan ahead for potential emergencies or crises. We balance all of this—always—with the constant presence of individual human stories that drive our research. It’s imperative to look beyond the numbers and algorithms, to be reminded of the narratives and experiences of refugees that drive our desire to shape policy at the global and local levels. To position our models and simulations in the policy arena is to take on the burden of ensuring that the humanity behind the computer is never forgotten.
Erika Frydenlund (@ErikaFrydenlund) is a research faculty at Old Dominion University. She uses simulations to study forced migration and social justice. She is the lead of the Migration and Mobility research group at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC)