Supporting rebels and hosting refugees: Explaining the variation in refugee flows in civil conflicts

Oguzhan Turkoglu

Journal of Peace Research (2021)


This paper examines whether a host country’s support for rebel groups affects the number of refugees that it hosts. The author argues that hosting refugees can be the continuation of a country’s support to rebel groups.

The author analyzes refugee flows from countries that experienced civil conflict between 1968 and 2011. Data on civil conflict comes from the Armed Conflict Dataset from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program/Peace Research Institute (UCDP/PRIO), data on refugee flows comes from the UNHCR Population Statistics Database, and data on host country support of rebel groups comes from Non-State Actor Data (NSAD) and UCDP External Support Data.

The author controls for various push factors for refugee migration (regime type, economic development, regime transition, interstate war, genocide), pull factors (democracy, economic development, regime transition, interstate war, civil conflict, genocide, ratification of international conventions on refugees), geographical, historical, and political relations between source and host countries (distance between source and host countries, number of source country neighbors, colonial ties, political relations characterized as rivalry or alliance, and transnational ethnic relations), and the populations of source and host countries.

Main results:

  • Rebel support is positively and significantly correlated with the number of refugees that countries host, robust to different model specifications and data sources. Countries that support rebel groups host twice as many refugees as others. Supporting rebels increases the number of refugees countries host on average by 2,000.
  • In the host country, GDP per capita and population have a positive and significant effect on the number of refugees hosted, the type of political regime type has no explanatory power, and civil conflict and genocide decrease the number of refugees hosted.
  • In the source country, regime transition and genocide increase the number of refugees, democracies generate fewer refugees, and higher GDP per capita decreases refugee flows.
  • Distance has a negative effect and the greater the number of a source country’s neighbors the smaller the number of refugees in the host country.
  • Political rivalry and colonial ties do not have explanatory power. Contrary to expectations, the ethnic relations variable is not statistically significant in the first iteration of the empirical model. However, ethnic relations become significant when distance is excluded from the model.

The author argues that conflict dynamics play a significant role in explaining the variation in refugee flows across countries. Host countries’ involvement in a conflict has a significant effect on the number of refugees that they host. The author suggests that this insight may enable the international community to better anticipate refugee flows, develop faster and more effective responses, and minimize adverse impacts of population flows for both host societies and displaced people.