Do Refugees Fuel Armed Conflict? Understanding the Dynamics of Migration

Close-up on a Bangladeshi refugee. Photo credit: Project Einstein Bangladesh, Digital Democracy.

By Eric Keels

This is the second post in a series on migration issues on land and sea. Read the first here

Countries that accept migrants and refugees provide a vital service to the people who enter their country and to the international community. However the risks to their internal stability can be severe. Influxes of refugees may even increase the risk of civil war for weak states. For instance, research on the spread of civil war has shown that the mass arrival of refugees may exacerbate preexisting tensions. In particular, research by political scientists, Idean Salehyan and Kristian Gleditsch note that refugees that have been uprooted by state terrorism or intrastate conflict often hold deep-seated grievances with the governments of their home country. Operating out of refugee camps, militant organizations may facilitate the transfer of weapons across borders to instigate armed insurgencies in their home countries. These actions often puts refugee communities at odds with their host government, as states attempt to prevent cross-border raids and maintain good relationships with their neighboring countries.

Refugees and migrants are also recruited by opposition groups in their host country. They can prove valuable allies due to their connections with armed factions operating in their home country, allowing for the flow of weapons across the border. These dynamics have been most visible in the ongoing conflicts throughout Central and Eastern Africa. During the early 1980s, for example, rebel groups in Uganda co-opted many Rwandan Tutsi refugees to support their war against the Obote regime. Following the overthrow of Obote, these same refugee communities in Uganda began a new military campaign in their home country of Rwanda, fostering greater instability within the region.

While refugees may threaten the stability of weak states, economic migrants may also undermine the stability of vulnerable countries. Economic migrants often reshape the ethnic composition of their host states, generating tensions with local workers and nativist groups who perceive these foreign workers as a threat to their economic wellbeing or their status in society. Opposition leaders within society may campaign on these negative attitudes during elections. They may also use these negative attitudes as recruiting tool to form armed groups to challenge the state.

This has long been the case with rebel organizations in the Assam region of India, that continue to violently protest the influx of Bangladeshi economic migrants. Equally, discriminatory policies that emerge to accommodate the demands of nativist groups may spur migrant communities to engage in political violence themselves. In sub-Saharan Africa, Cote d’Ivoire remains a clear example in which economic migrants have been scapegoated by nativist groups campaigning on social contention. The discrimination was all the more paradoxical considering that Cote d’Ivoire benefited greatly from cheap labor flowing in from neighboring Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Following the decline in cocoa prices in the late 1980s, the country began to suffer from a dramatic economic slowdown. This downturn in the economy quickly pitted ethnic groups who viewed themselves as native to Cote d’Ivoire against those who were perceived as migrants or outsiders. Political entrepreneurs campaigned on these grievances in order to secure elected office (launching the Ivoirité movement). Discriminatory policies that were enacted as a result of these nativist campaigns spurred widespread dissent by those affected, generating armed conflict between rebel groups based in the largely Muslim north against the Christian south.

Should countries refuse to receive migrants?

These examples should not be taken as a call to ban economic migration or to avoid offering shelter to refugees. The international community has long recognized that governments have a responsibility to offer shelter to those fleeing armed conflict or environmental catastrophes. Equally, foreign migrants often offer critical labor, skills, and capital that can be used to spur economic growth. What should be taken into consideration, though, is where these refugees and migrants land in their search for security and prosperity. Given an unwillingness on the part of wealthier countries (such as those in the OECD) to accept large numbers of refugees, vulnerable states that are contiguous with conflict zones are often the first (and last) stop for civilians fleeing wartime violence.

If the international community is interested in preventing the spread of civil war, one possible solution may be a greater emphasis on hosting refugees in wealthier countries that have the capacity to incorporate them into society. This should also apply to those states that host economic migrants. While the flow of labor may assist with the development of economies, economic downturns and shifts in ethnic composition may threaten the stability of weak states. Economies that have developed adequate social service provisions designed to ameliorate the costs of economic downturns should be particularly open to hosting immigrant workers, particularly given the numerous benefits associated with increased immigration.

The international community may also work to buttress the capacity of developing countries that host refugees and open their borders to economic migrants. In addition to hosting these communities within their own countries, wealthier members of the international system may provide vital aid and expertise to governments neighboring warzones so as to prevent the contagion of armed conflict. As weak states that are contiguous with war-torn countries are inevitably the first stop for civilians fleeing violence, it is a sound investment for the international community to ensure that more countries do not fall victim to political instability.      

Check back in next week for another post in our series on the dynamics of migration.


The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) present an ambitious opportunity to address global issues of poverty, violence, and environmental degradation. Recognizing the interrelated challenges posed by inequality, instability, and ecological threats, the SDGs provide 17 areas the international community has committed to addressing in order to foster greater global stability. Key to addressing many of these issues (such as peace and economic development) is tackling the many challenges posed by mixed migration. Migration – both regular and irregular - takes many forms, such as climate- or conflict-induced displacement, economic migration, asylum-seeking, forced labor, smuggling or human trafficking.

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