One-sided Violence in Refugee-hosting Areas

Christian Gineste and Burcu Savun

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


This paper studies the relationship between within-country patterns of refugee settlement and patterns of civilian victimization during armed conflict. The author posits that:

  • Armed actors victimize civilians at higher rates in areas with larger refugee populations, because: (a) these areas offer armed groups opportunities for concealment/sanctuary as well as ‘‘refugee resources’’ (humanitarian aid, recruitment potential) that enhance their strategic value; (b) consequently these areas may be more likely to be militarized by armed groups (storage and trafficking of arms, presence of active and ex-combatants, recruitment, military training, use of camps as military bases) leading to violence against civilians; (c) government forces and government-affiliated non-state armed groups (from both origin and host countries) are more likely to target militarized areas to eliminate strategic advantages for their opponents; and (d) difficulties of distinguishing combatants from civilians lead to collective targeting of refugee and local civilian populations in these locations based on ascriptive clues (nationality, ethnicity, language).
  • Armed actors victimize civilians at higher rates in areas that host larger self-settled refugee populations. Compared to locations that host camp-settled refugees or no refugees, areas home to self-settled refugees (who live among the local population, do not have official legal status as refugees, and cannot rely on formal/dedicated protection and assistance) may be used as a proxy for rival support since self-settled refugees are more likely to share an affinity (language, kinship ties, ethnicity) with the host community. This makes collective targeting more likely in these locations.


The analysis is based on an original dataset on the locations and demographics of refugee populations within host countries in Africa from 2000 to 2010. Key findings:

  • There is evidence of systematic violence against civilians in refugee-populated regions throughout Africa in the period under investigation.
  • Locations with larger refugee populations experience a significantly higher number of intentional attacks on civilians—by both sending country and host country combatants—compared to other locations.
  • The effect of refugee population size on civilian victimization is conditional upon how they are settled in the host country. While regions hosting larger numbers of self-settled refugees experience a significant increase in incidents of one-sided attacks on civilians compared to other regions in the host country, larger camp-settled populations are shown to be unrelated to the level of violence.

The findings draw attention to the importance of simultaneously addressing the security challenges refugee populations can potentially pose as well as threats to refugees themselves.