Refugee Warriors

Jan 2006 - May 2011

Aims and Goals: This project aims to examine the influence of transnational communities on civil war, by studying the impact of refugee warriors in Pakistan and Iran on the war, including the question of how refugee return and reintegration affects domestic conflict dynamics.

Noticing the increasing importance of refugee-based rebel groups, Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo (1989) coined the term ‘Refugee Warriors’. The general insight inherent in the 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, being occupied with the ethical dilemmas that the refugee warrior phenomenon represents for humanitarian actors. Yet, limited knowledge is available still on the exact nature of refugee warriorism and its consequences for civil war and post-conflict reconstruction.

The extant scholarship of refugee warriorism privileges the role of humanitarian aid and the supporting role of host states as well as other states. Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo framed this within the larger context of the international regime, which materialized itself both in physical support to refugees, and provides legitimacy to armed groups and their supporters. There is only scant attention to the refugee-internal dynamics of mobilization. One ambition of this project is to draw on the larger literature on political mobilization – and to look particularly at the ways in which established networks become instrumental in mobilizing amongst refugees.

There are several linkages between the reintegration of returnees, on the one hand, and the demobilization and reintegration of fighters (DDR), on the other. A proportion of the returnees are (current or former) fighters; and a proportion of the fighters are 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, all assumed to be ‘civilians’, is seen to signify a successful peace process.

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. Little attention has been paid to the effects that rapid repatriation of militarily active refugees may have on political transitions. In the literature on refugee mobilization, a concern has been voiced that the present-day international preference for repatriation as a durable solution fosters more protracted refugee situations that are susceptible to political and military mobilization. Less attention has been paid to the political risks inherent in repatriation itself, particularly in the context of regime change. Repatriation exercises to Afghanistan from 1992 onwards provide an interesting example to study these risks.

The refugee warrior thematic is pursued under the working group on Transnational and International Facets of Civil


Conference Paper

Harpviken, Kristian Berg 2008What is Special about Refugee Warriors?, presented at Global Migation and Transnational Politics: Towards a New Policy Agenda18 April.