The first in a series of two workshops, the May 2006 event will be of an explorative character. A follow-up workshop is planned for late 2006 or early 2007. Ultimately, the ambition is to lay the foundations for the publication of several articles on the subject, possible as a special issue (or a special section) of a suitable journal.


Noticing the increasing importance of refugee-based rebel groups, Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo coined the term ‘Refugee Warriors’ in the latter half of the 1980s. These authors were primarily occupied with issues of legitimacy in the international domain, and focused on the emergence of the international refugee regime, as well as the increasingly dominant ideology of democratic nationalism. Within a system of states, this served as a legitimization of resistance, hence also for providing sanctuary as well as external support (humanitarian, political and military). In identifying the phenomenon, Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo emphasized the presence of armed forces with a distinct leadership and organizational structure – the so-called “fighting function” – but they did not enter into an analysis of mobilization dynamics.

The general insight inherent in the Refugee Warrior concept – that refugees under certain conditions may play active roles in war – has gained status as common knowledge in the practitioner community, and has had a significant impact on policy. In recent years, several authors have again brought attention to the phenomena, while not necessarily applying the same concept (Lischer 2005, Stedman & Tanner 2003, Terry 2002). These authors are all occupied with the ethical dilemmas that the refugee warrior phenomena represents for humanitarian actors, but the challenges of how to address this in the context of repatriation and transitions to peace are only marginally touched upon.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has increasingly come to realize that refugee mobilization is potentially a great threat. The UNHCR has developed a so-called ‘Ladder of Options’ to respond to refugee mobilization in refugee camps: the first includes preventive measures and cooperation with national law-enforcement authorities; the second step involves deployment of civilian or police monitors; and the third and final step includes military deployment (Loescher 2005: 68). From the UNHCR’s side, however, there has been little thinking on how to address problems with refugee warriors in repatriation processes.

The Return and Reintegration of ‘Returnee Warriors’

Members of a refugee population who are associated with political or military parties will have a stronger incentive than others to return quickly if there is a regime change in the home country benefiting their party. It is in the early days of a new regime that the best prizes may be won – such as state jobs, political influence, and economic contracts and opportunities. Despite the vast debate on refugee warrior communities, however, little attention has been paid to the effect that rapid repatriation of militarily active refugees may have on political transitions. One prominent voice in the recent ‘refugee warrior debate, Sara Lischer (2005: 150–151), is concerned that the present-day international preference for repatriation (over integration or third-country resettlement) fosters more long-term refugee populations that are susceptible to political and military mobilization. The literature on refugee mobilization, however, pays less attention to the political risks inherent in repatriation, particularly in the context of regime change – such as in Afghanistan in 1992 and 2001.

There are several linkages between the reintegration of returnees, on the one hand, and the demobilization and reintegration of fighters, on the other. As most observers point out, the successful reintegration of fighters is a precondition for fostering the security needed for the successful reintegration of returnees. Thus, there is a strong need to invest heavily in Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs, although this poses serious moral dilemmas:

DDR programs in post-war societies often arouse debate over whether combatants ... should be accorded special treatment over groups such as refugees and internally displaced people. (Sedra 2003: 16)

A proportion of the returnees are (current or former) fighters; and, vice versa, a proportion of the fighters are found among the refugees. Nonetheless, it is common to distinguish sharply between fighters and returning refugees. The two are seen as distinct rather than overlapping groups, and the return of refugees, which are all assumed to be ‘civilians’, is seen to signify a successful peace process. Howard Adelman has examined the assumption that refugee return is a condition for – or at least a significant indicator of – a viable peace process, and he finds that that there is no relationship (Adelman 2002). More dramatically, however, there are context under which rapid return may threaten the viability of peace if returning refugees are actually fighters or are mobilized as fighters. In such cases, the returnees themselves may represent a security threat, and hence undermine a peace process. There is an understandable reluctance to realize that the same person may be a returning refugee and fighter – both victim and perpetrator. The ‘refugee warrior’ debate has yet to inform the analysis of reintegration.

Box: Afghan example

In the Afghan context, the building of military capacity amongst refugee populations based in neighbouring countries represents a major challenge to the peace process. It was within these populations that the mujahedin of the 1980s, as well as the Taliban of the 1990s drew much of its support. Today, armed insurgents continue to attack the Afghan government, humanitarian agencies as well as international military forces under the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Many of those attacks come from bases in exile, first and foremost in Pakistan. In areas of Afghanistan where the political situation remains particularly tense, such as in the northern provinces of Faryab and Jowzjan, commanders have sought to attract refugees (and IDPs) back in order to strengthen their military and political position, whereas humanitarian agencies have worked to discourage repatriation. It is unclear to what extent repatriates are overrepresented among the insurgents. Meanwhile, neighbouring states – most importantly Pakistan and Iran – continue to escalate the pressure for repatriation. Within those states, however, there are actors not necessarily controlled by the government, which continue to extend support to Afghan groups with armed capacity. These are seemingly contradictory forces which play out simultaneously. The implications for regional security, however, may be severe, as the interests of the Afghan government and its neighbours clash. Even more concretely, continued unrest stirred by exile based groups may provoke counter-reactions from the Afghan government or from international military forces based in the country.

The military and political history of networks and organizations that have developed in exile may have profound implications for post-conflict stability, they often prove remarkably resilient, and have the potential for filling a void left by a weak government. The military organizations that offers security to some, however, does not necessarily cater to the needs of others. Many find the militarized networks closed and self-protective. The later in a return sequence we are, the larger the share of returnees who are excluded from the corridors of power. One implication, of course, is that militarized networks may be great at producing security for their associates, but may at the same time cause insecurity for everybody else.

Workshop format

The workshop will be based on presentations of papers. One discussant will be appointed for each paper. There will be ample room for discussion. The papers should focus on one or several of the following:

  1.  Conceptual frameworks on ‘Refugee Warriors’ applied return & reintegration
  2.  Conceptual frameworks related to Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of fighters applied to the return of ‘Refugee Warriors’
  3.  Case studies


Adelman, Howard, 2002. ‘Refugee Repatriation’, in Stephen John Stedman, Donald Rotchild & Elizabeth M. Cousens, eds, Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner (273-302).

Lischer, Sarah Kenyon, 2005. Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil Wars and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid. Ithaca, NJ: Cornell University Press.

Loescher, Gil, 2005. ‘Protracted Refugee Situations: Domestic and International Security Implications’, Adelphi Papers 375. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Sedra, Mark, 2003. New Beginnings or Return to Arms? The Disarmament, Demobilization & Reintegration Process in Afghanistan. Paper presented at the conference ‘State Reconstruction and International Engagement in Afghanistan’, Bonn, 30 May-1 June.

Stedman, Stephen John & Fred Tanner, eds, 2003. Refugee Manipulation: War Politics and the Abuse of Human Suffering. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Terry, Fiona, 2002. Condemned to Repeat: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. Ithaca, NJ: Cornell University Press.

Zolberg, Aristide; Astri Suhrke & Sergio Aguayo, 1986. ‘International Factors in the Formation of Refugee Movements’, International Migration Review 20(2): 151–169.

Zolberg, Aristide; Astri Suhrke & Sergio Aguayo, 1989. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press.