Going Home to Fight? Explaining Refugee Return and Violence

Led by Kristian Berg Harpviken

Jan 2008 – Dec 2012

​​​​This project examines why some returning refugees come to destabilize the peace process in their home country upon return, whereas others do not.

This project examines why some returning refugees come to destabilize the peace process in their home country upon return, whereas others do not. The potential for violent mobilization amongst refugees was firmly placed on the agenda through the concept ‘refugee warriors’. Sarah Kenyon Lischer has estimated that militarization is significant in some 15-20% of all refugee populations. Furthermore, it is clear that most refugee warriorism aims at political power in the country of origin. Nonetheless, the potential for threats to peace due to returnee mobilization has remained unaddressed, by academics and policymakers alike. Forced migration provides fertile ground for violent collective action. This may seem obvious today, but when the term ‘refugee warriors’ was launched in the latter half of the 1980s, it was highly controversial. The term was coined by Astri Suhrke, and introduced through the collaborative work by Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergio Aguayo, in particular in the book Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (Cambridge University Press, 1989). The term brought attention to an important, yet so far neglected, aspect of displacement. Despite the fact that a proportion of the returnees are (current or former) fighters, the two are dealt with as separate categories of people – in the academic literature as well as by policymakers and practitioners. Furthermore, the return of refugees - all assumed to be ‘civilians’ - is seen to signify a successful peace process. The possible negative impact of refugee return on the post-conflict situation is often discussed as a question of ‘absorptive capacity’. More dramatically, however, rapid return may threaten the viability of peace if returning refugees are actual fighters or are mobilized as fighters upon return. If so, the returnees themselves may represent a security threat, and hence undermine a peace process.The project aims at mapping the mechanisms by which returning refugees engage in violence in their country of origin. We look at a subset of returnees – those from refugee populations where military mobilization has been prevalent – and explore the mechanisms by which they come to engage militarily, or not, upon return. Five types of factors are dominant in explaining returnee mobilization:1. The nature of the peace;2. support from other states;3. social cohesion among returnees and with those still in exile;4. humanitarian support from external sources; and5. economic opportunities at home.Each of these has both local and transnational aspects. The nature of the peace, for example, is about the commitment of domestic groups, the stance of transnational non-state actors, and the buy-in from neighboring states.The project has been funded by a grant (2008-2011) from the Research Council of Norway, with additional funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2012–). The project has an ambitious publication plan, and will culminate in a book that conveys the results of five case studies (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Darfur/Sudan, Liberia and Rwanda) as well as an overarching analytical framework and the generic conclusions. Findings will also be conveyed in a series of four policy briefs, aimed at a broader audience of policy-makers and practitioners in refugee management, peacemaking and peacebuilding.

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