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Last Updated: 11/17/2015
On Refugees & International Conflict
Sabrina Chikhi

This paper discusses the risks caused by cross-border refugee migration. It underscores the hazard of regional destabilization through the militarization of refugee camps. It calls for the necessity to effectively prevent such threat, and proposes some preventive measures to mitigate such possibility.

The increase of internal conflicts, especially since the end of the Cold War, has not only augmented the number of internal strives, but also amplified trans-border migration. In such contexts, refugees cross the national frontiers and seek safety within the geographical boundaries of adjacent sovereign states for fear of prosecution. Regardless of the root-cause of the dispute, the flow of refugees is at the origin of further instability in the region, as it quite often it contributes to tensions between the neighboring countries. In this essay, I will discuss the negative impacts of refugee migration in a host country and its potential as a source of international conflict. In order to do so, I will explore the causes of militarization in the refugee camps in order to provide some insight about the possible containment and prevention of such phenomenon among vulnerable populations.

For the purpose of this paper, I will use the United Nations convention of 1951 which states that a refugee is a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”. In most of the cases, however, refugees flee political persecution and human rights violations caused by internal political disputes over power and distribution of resources. They usually flee to neighboring countries where they can escape oppression by being in a sovereign state.

In addition to the humanitarian dimension, the massive exoduses of refugees represent a serious threat to the stability of a region torn by an internal conflict. This is essentially due to the fact that geographic boundaries are porous to the passage of victims of violence, as countries are to be considered as “dense network of social interactions where processes within one state have significant repercussions for the regions and elsewhere” (Saleyhan, 2008). Refugees negatively impact the economy of the host countries, which most of the time cannot respond to the financial burden imposed by the emergency situation, and usually welcome unskilled labor which competes for jobs with the local population. They also pose a serious public health issue to the receiving country as camps, most of the time, lack the basic resources to respond to the specific needs of this vulnerable population which is known for having contributed to the spread of infectious diseases (Collier, 2003). Furthermore, they are quite often perceived as a threat to the cultural identity of the host community. In this sense, Brown (1996) indicates that “the sudden influx of refugees can aggravate ethnic problems and further complicate the picture by changing the domestic balance of power”. In addition to that, they might contribute to the extension of the of the conflict by establishing militant bases for their fellow citizen who are still active in their in their home country.

The militarization of refugee camps is particularly dangerous because it threatens the sovereignty of the receiving country, complicates the humanitarian actions, and directly affects the relationship with the adjacent country (ies), since they are usually located near the borders. Statistics show that the refugee political violence occurs in 15% of the states which host 2,000 refugees or more (Lebson, 2013). It is important to underscore that only Odyssean refugees tend to militarize. These people who “were positively committed to the political struggle and to a project of society in their homeland; they also brought this project with them to exile…Return is their objective with the aim of continuing the project” (Joly, 2002).

It is important to underscore that not all refugees militarize for the same reasons. While some of them are coerced to do so (Morris & Stedman, 2008), the Odyssean group is more likely to become a “conflict group” when its member subscribe to a political agenda and when they have the means to sustain their movement against the regime in place. In this case, their frustration about their current situation in the camps motivates their actions. They usually take advantage of the humanitarian aid and use the resources provided by the diaspora to engage and reach their goals. The other possible cause of militarization has to do with the constructed identity refugees acquire through their common experience in the camps. Indeed, the social stratification in their home country is replaced by the shared identity they acquire because of their current status, which in turn exasperates the anger, and causes them to embrace the movement either through direct military contribution, or by supporting their militarization. Militarization may also be economically motivated. In fact, if refugees find that they have more to gain by returning to their home country, they are more likely to get militarized. Whereas if the economic possibilities to integrate the labor market in the host country are higher, they will certainly opt for settling in the receiving state through all processes and means at their disposal.

Based on the above-mentioned, the host countries have no alternative than to prevent or reduce the risk of militarization among the refugees. In most of the situations, and because of examples like Sudan, the receiving nations are inclined to take all the necessary steps to prevent the negative consequences of refugee migration, especially when risk of camps militarization is conceivable. According to Saleyhan (2008), host countries “may become willing to prevent negative externalities through military invasion of the source state”. This can essentially happen when the political relationships between the two neighboring countries are not stable enough to sustain possible cross-border military strikes against refugees and rebels. It can also happen when the receiving state is suspected of supporting the opposition, and fails to demonstrate the opposite.

In order to do so, the host country has to tackle the eventuality through complementary approaches. This can be done by reducing refugees’ political and economic motivation to militarize while deterring the spreading of arms in the camps. The first option remains the most important step in preventing the militarization of refugees. Its main objective is to reassure the country subject to political turmoil that the receiving state is not sustaining or encouraging the rebellion. As an indication of good faith, the latter has to actively engage in the conflict resolution process. It has not only to try to mediate, but also create the climate of discussion where the regime in place can constructively negotiate a sustainable peace agreement. In the camps, dedicated teams could contribute to the prevention of child soldiers enrollment through programs designed to keep them busy, earn a steady income, and engage them in peace-building activities. Education pertaining to peaceful conflict management could also be dedicated to all fringes of the population.

In order to reduce the economic motivation, the living conditions should be improved in the camps. This can be done through the help of the UNHCR in coordination with all NGOs present in the region. The host government could accommodate the legal system in order to provide refugees with employment opportunities. In this regards, the contribution of international donors, who could provide micro-loans to the refugees in order to contribute to the economic development of the region they are settled in, could be very useful. This will certainly create a climate of cooperation between the local population and the immigrants. Training and skills development can also be provided to enable their economic assimilation, or to prepare them for the job market in their country of origin, once the conflict is resolved.

As it is the case in most camps, refugees tend to be armed to defend themselves. The increasing number armfires among the refugee population also constitute a very important cause of militarization. For this reason, camps must be managed in a way that would prevent their spreading. This can be done by increasing the level of security within its premises. If affordable for the host country, it could create units in charge of the protection of the civilians. Otherwise, it has to properly select and train members from the camp, and assign them to policing function, under the state’s or international organization’s supervision. This will not only contribute to increasing the security in the camps, but also considerably diminish the need for armament acquisition.

With all the preventive steps discussed above, the receiving country will certainly contribute to the reduction of the tension between the refugees and the sending government. It will also incite the latter to avoid cross-borders operations to eliminate potential risks caused by refugees. This, in turn, will considerably reduce the possibility of international conflict caused by refugee migration.


Civil unrest can lead to international conflict when refugee migration threatens the security of the receiving country. In cases of minority repression and civil war, the probability of military conflict between neighboring countries is very likely, especially if the conditions for refugees’ militarization are provided. It is the duty of the receiving state to evaluate and actively contribute to the elimination of all the causes leading to such possibility. Yet, it is quite clear that this is hardly possible if the host country bears alone the economic and political burden of such endeavor. That is why regional and international organizations should actively be involved to provide all the necessary support to the receiving state. This can only be done thanks to the implementation of legal and institutional mechanisms specifically created to address such cases.


Collier, Paul, V.L. Elliott, Harvard Hegre, Anke Hoeffler, Marta Reynal-Querol, and Nicholas Sambanies, (2003), Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Lebson, Mike, (2013). Why Refugees Rebel: Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Refugee Militarization. International Migaration, Vol. 51 (5) 2013. ISBN: 0020-7985

Salehyan, Idean,(2008). The Externalities of Civil Strife: Refugees as a Source of International Conflict. American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 52, No. 4, October 2008, pp-787=801.