Elizabeth Ekren

Research themes
  • Governance
  • Mobility and migration
  • Institutions
  • Social and Cultural Change and Adaption
  • Economic change and vulnerability
  • Mobility, migration and urbanization
Research countries
  • Germany
Research projects

Proposed thesis: Institutions and agency for change in everyday refugee life: experiences of enduring and overcoming challenges of daily living in Cologne refugee shelters

Additional information


Professional experience

AssetMark, Inc. (formerly known as Genworth Financial, Inc.), Booz Allen Hamilton, National Defense University, The Heritage Foundation


Master of Science, Russian and East European Studies, University of Oxford (2010); Bachelor of Arts, Psychology, Russian Language, Yale University (2009); Associate of Arts, German Language, Defense Language Institute (2016)


institutions, economic anthropology, small business economics

Funding institutions

IPID4all (€500 conference grant, March 2017); United States National Military Family Association (€900 tuition grant, April 2017, April 2019); Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (€1200 monthly Ph.D. Stipend, November 2017-2018)

Thesis title

Institutions and agency for change in everyday refugee life: experiences of enduring and overcoming challenges of daily living in Cologne refugee shelters

Thesis abstract

To what extent are refugees empowered in their daily lives to overcome legal, material, and sociocultural challenges that governmental institutional structures create? These structures are inherent to the essence of refugee life: they conceptually define the states refugees flee and logistically determine the trajectories they pursue after. Across cases, the administrative complexity of these structures limits the access refugees have to material resources, livelihoods, and individual rights, diminishing overall well-being. Research on camp life in developing countries shows many examples of individual ingenuity and community-driven innovation to address these shortcomings, in which refugees capitalize on opportunities from the “bottom-up” to independently fulfill their needs or provide new services in their communities.

This potential remains unclear in developed countries with robust economies and legal systems, such as Germany, where over 800,000 refugees received a form of protection since 2015. The purpose of this PhD research is to describe and understand refugees’ capacity for change in daily life in an emerging context distinct from that of previous research. As Germany experiences the largest influx of refugees since the end of World War II, insight into the restricting and enabling outcomes of governmental structures can help better understand the extent to which refugees are positioned for psychological healing, material stability, and integration success.

Providing for almost 10% of the state of North Rhein Westphalia’s refugees in an urban environment where nearly 40% of residents have a migration background, the city of Cologne serves as a poignant case study in which to investigate the concepts at hand. This thesis presents qualitative data from fieldwork conducted in refugee shelters in one municipal district between 2017 and 2018. A conceptual coding template is used to analyze legal documents; semi-structured interviews with 47 experts and 16 refugee families; conversational interviews with 11 additional refugee families; and 234 pages of field notes documenting observations of shelter life, volunteer gatherings, and government-sponsored events. Expert interviews include government representatives, municipal employees, NGO leaders, social workers, police, and volunteers. Reflecting the diverse reality of shelter life, interviews with refugees from 12 different countries include variation in legal status, family structures, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Descriptive and thematic analyses reveal that refugees’ capacity for driving change is highly constrained across all domains of daily living. The inflexibility and excess of layered governmental institutional systems (at levels of nation, state, municipality, and civil society) leave few institutional voids that refugees can fill themselves. As legal frameworks defining access to benefits, services, and rights change rapidly, instability in the bounds of what is permissible in daily living mean that needs are quickly evolving to become more immaterial. These needs—such as understanding rights, learning language, finding employment, adjudicating complex legal cases and feeling hopeful to obtain stability—are existential and thus difficult to address with individual ingenuity or self-organized, community-based solutions. Further, refugee shelters–where impermanence in status and diversity in residents make supportive relationships difficult to cultivate–do not possess the relevant conditions for systems of self-organization and “bottom-up” communal problem solving to develop. While refugees often desire to find solutions to their needs themselves, these factors instead empower local government or civil society actors to do so on their behalf. Connections to these community “gatekeepers” become critical to navigate bureaucratic complexities, become an exception to process, and obtain the emotional and material outcomes that allow for moving beyond conditions of certain uncertainty.

This PhD research contributes to the evolving understanding of how governmental opportunity structures empower refugees to start new lives in new places. The findings suggest the need for more clearly defined policy goals in order to limit institutional volatility and support more stability in the cadence of daily life. Until structures stabilize, connections with Germans in the community continue to offer the most robust channels towards overcoming instability and taking advantage of opportunities to integrate. Civil society groups should continue to use their positioning to advocate for improvements in these areas, so that refugees can be empowered as agents of their own change and meaningful life outcomes.

Key words: refugees, refugee camps, institutions, daily life, agency, empowerment, Germany

Doctoral research funded by

Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit

Supervisors of
doctoral work

Prof. Dr. Eva Youkhana

Advisor at ZEF

Dr. Wolfram Laube


Ekren, E. 2018. Obstacles to Refugees’ Self-Reliance in Germany. Forced Migration Review, 58: 30-32. (Open Access) Download [PDF | 345.40KB]
Further Information
Ekren, E.. 2018. How can theories of institutional design and everyday innovation reveal agency for change in refugee communities?. International Journal of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies, 3 (2): 5-18. (Open Access) Further Information


Ekren, E.. 2017. How Can Theories of Institutional Design and Everyday Innovation Reveal Agency for Change in Refugee Communities?. Download [PDF | 211.73KB]

Additionals, Curriculum Vitae
and Downloads

Elizabeth Ekren

Junior Researcher

ZEF A: Department of Political and Cultural Change