Refugees, Ethnic Power Relations, and Civil Conflict in the Country of Asylum

Seraina Rüegger

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


Past research indicates that refugees from neighboring states increase the risk of armed conflict in asylum countries by upsetting the ethnic balance. (The paper includes a review of the literature on forced displacement and political violence.) However, previous research has not systematically analyzed the ethnic group membership of refugees or tested the ethnic balance mechanism. This article explores how refugee flows may affect the risk of armed ethnic conflict in the receiving state, depending on local ethnic politics and ethnic ties between refugees and the host population. The author shows that the vast majority of refugees worldwide do not cause conflict in the asylum state, however if refugees arrive in countries with pre-existing exclusion of a refugee group’s co-ethnics, there is a higher risk of exacerbated domestic tensions. The author attributes this to a two-step process:

  • A refugee influx leads to an increase in the size and political leverage of their ethnic group in the host country (including by sharing rebellious ideas or increasing the manpower of the ethnic group), allowing them to challenge the predominance of other political groups and upset the ethnic equilibrium in host states.
  • This is perceived as a threat by politically dominant groups, which may pre-emptively or reactively suppress either refugees or their ethnic kin in the host country.

Only when refugees share ethnicity with excluded domestic groups in host states does the risk of civil conflict appear to increase, i.e. internal problems caused by the marginalization of ethnic groups may intensify in the context of refugee migration. The author concludes that host governments should pursue inclusionary policies towards their population, to prevent dangerous instability, instead of closing borders or blaming refugees for domestic problems.