2019 - 2022

Funded by the Office of Naval Research through the Minerva Research Initiative, this project looks at three case studies - Greece, Colombia, and South Africa - to understand how to support social stability in communities receiving a rapid, sudden population influx.



The movement of displaced populations into and through a host region’s territory place additional demands on critical infrastructure, engendering new, or exacerbating existing, racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as competition for resources intensifies and the network of systems that support food, sheltering, security, healthcare, and sanitation are strained. Host regions face the challenge of providing for the basic needs of the newly arrived populations dislocated either by short-term shocks, such as natural disasters and conflict in neighboring regions, or longer-term economic and environmental trends. Both theoretical development and applied modeling are required to better understand the capacity of a region’s systems and its population to absorb these increasing demands as well as to assess the impact that persistent supply-demand pressures may have on the governance and broader social issues of the host region.

This project examines the concept of absorptive capacity to provide insight into the dynamics of systems’ and populations’ stresses stemming from population movements. If successful, this project shall yield two significant outcomes: 1) advance a theory of absorptive capacity and 2) advance the methodological use of simulation for theory generation and knowledge creation. A theory of absorptive capacity will facilitate understanding of the relationships among supply-demand pressures considering long-term regional stability. A simulation-based methodology will allow researchers to not only extend the theory through the simulation, but also generate new knowledge and extend research on absorptive capacity. Such knowledge and insights may allow for the strategic timing of interventions designed to mitigate instability in host regions, lessening the potential for disruptive perturbations to become larger crises



Case study cities were selected due to the dissimilarities in geographies, populations, land area, and risk posed by natural- and human-induced disruptions driving population migration.  For example, Cúcuta, Colombia is receiving displaced populations from Venezuela due to an economic crisis, while Lesbos, Greece is managing transient refugees attempting to reach Europe stemming from broader geopolitical conflicts. For both, the magnitude of the events and population displacement relative to these regions’ internal resources places limits on their absorptive capacities, which is further constrained by the necessarily lagged injection of external personnel and resources. Cape Town, South Africa, currently recovering from significant drought that threatened wide social instability, is also home to a complex, tenuous arrangement of socially and economically marginalized townships that have experienced recent waves of in-migration from across Africa.

A school container in Kara Tepe Camp
Migration waypoint in Cucuta, Colombia
Temporary housing that has become permanent in Cape Town


A small, island community familiar with seasonal tourists from Europe and beyond that became the epicenter of the migration towards Europe in 2015.


One of the main border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia, the town of Cucuta sees thousands of people crossing daily either for goods to take back to Venezuela, to access critical services such as healthcare or food distribution programs, or to move onward for more opportunities in other cities or other South American countries.


As the land of opportunity in southern Africa, South Africa draw migrants towards it in great numbers. Still recovering from the structural inequalities of apartheid, South Africa struggles to meet the needs of its own citizens. Cape Town is one city that continues to battle with its own inequalities while accommodating thousands of migrants.