Blame the Victims? Refugees, State Capacity, and Non-State Actor Violence

Tobias Böhmelt, Vincenzo Bove, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch

Journal of Peace Research, Volume 56, Issue 1 (2019)


This article looks beyond the effects of refugees on conventional conflict and considers how refugee flows may affect the risk of non-state actor violence, i.e. conflict between groups outside of and not affiliated with the state that are identified by shared communal identities, and are often fought over land distribution or access to natural resources, or are a result of socio-economic inequalities. The article also considers the potential mitigating influence of state capacity. The authors argue that large refugee populations can strain economic resources, creating tensions between the local population and refugees, and eventually increasing the likelihood of communal violence. However, this relationship is conditioned by host government capacity. States with high administrative and economic capability are better placed to manage pressures from refugee influx and reduce the local population’s grievances through the sufficient provision of public goods and services. The moderating influence of state capacity is important, as developing and emerging countries host the most refugees and suffer disproportionately.

The authors find that refugees can increase communal conflict, but only in states that have poor capacity to manage risks. A larger number of refugees can be associated with a higher non-state conflict risk, but not a higher risk of civil war, i.e. state-based conflict.  Only in weak states are large refugee flows associated with an increased risk of non-state violence. These findings highlight the importance of third-party assistance to strengthen state capacity, especially economically, in many developing countries that host the majority refugee population. The analysis lends little support to the alarmist calls for restricting refugee access in developed countries on security grounds.