At first glance this may not appear to have anything to do with engagement. It certainly may have little relevance for pure biomedical research. However, by illustrating how the challenges of lived experience do not always fit neatly within either the disciplinary or policy categorisations of outsiders, it does suggest a need to study the lived experience of affected populations if appropriate decisions are to be made about their needs. Such study, which by definition requires some engagement with its subjects, may also be of direct value as an input into research on epidemiology or public health.
Given that research into forced migration is looking at processes of enormous human suffering and often involves working with people who are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and physical harm, it seems difficult to justify if it has no relevance for policy. This article argues that the search for policy relevance has encouraged researchers to take the categories, concepts and priorities of policy makers and practitioners as their initial frame of reference for identifying their areas of study and formulating research questions. This privileges the worldview of the policy makers in constructing the research, constraining the questions asked, the objects of study and the methodologies and analysis adopted. In particular, it leaves large groups of forced migrants invisible in both research and policy. Drawing on a case study of self-settled refugees, the article explores how these limitations affect the research process, despite the efforts of the researcher to move beyond policy categories. In order to bring such ‘invisible’ forced migrants into view, the conclusion calls for more oblique approaches to research, which recognize the ‘normality’ within their situation rather than privileging their position as forced migrants as the primary explanatory factor. Such studies may help to bridge the gap between refugee studies and broader social scientific theories of social transformation and human mobility. By breaking away from policy relevance, it will be possible to challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions that underpins much practice and in due course bring much more significant changes to the lives of forced migrants.