Reexamining the Effect of Refugees on Civil Conflict: A Global Subnational Analysis

Yang-Yang Zhou and Andrew Shaver

American Political Science Review (2021), Pages 1–22


This paper examines whether the presence of refugees increases the likelihood of civil conflict in host countries.

The analysis exploits global data on geocoded sites of refugee communities (including both formal camps and informal settlements), which are combined with geocoded data on conflict outcomes and other development-related indicators at the subnational (provincial) level from 1990 to 2018.

Main findings:

  • Areas hosting refugee communities do not experience more conflict compared to areas without refugees. The presence of refugees does not lead to new conflict, prolong ongoing conflict, or increase the intensity of conflict (as measured by the number of violent events and number of battle deaths).
  • Under certain conditions, refugee settlement has negative effects on conflict likelihood. Specifically, if refugee sites are geographically concentrated in a country, have had time to become more established, and accommodate large numbers of refugees, then hosting provinces experience large decreases in conflict risk and intensity.
  • There is suggestive evidence that this ‘conditional risk reduction’ effect is due to increased development and state capacity resulting from economic activity, aid, and infrastructure within these areas. An analysis of night-time lights data as a proxy for development, indicates that these hosting provinces benefit from increased development, reflecting the increased presence of humanitarian organizations around such sites.

Overall, the results demonstrate that refugee hosting generally has no effect on conflict risk, and in some cases, a substantial negative effect. The authors argue that the potential stabilizing effects of refugee communities are both underappreciated and potentially more important than the destabilizing ones.