Do Refugee Encampment Policies Contribute to Communal Conflict?

Guest post by Kerstin Fisk.

Placing refugees in formal encampments remains the preferred policy solution for most host states in the developing world, where about 90 percent of the world’s forcibly displaced are settled. Although UNHCR and other aid agencies increasingly call for alternatives to camps, host states’ preference for camp settlement is driven by perceptions that refugees are threats to national security, and that encampment policies minimize their economic and security impacts on host populations.

Encampment can, for instance, increase tensions between refugees when camps concentrate refugee populations from different sides of the same conflict—such as Sudanese Dinka and Sudanese Nuer—together. Tensions between local hosts and refugees are likely to worsen when camps become militarized and are targeted for forced recruitment by militants—host populations often blame refugees for the militants’ infiltration. Refugee encampment has also been shown to worsen host-refugee relations by contributing to environmental degradation in areas surrounding camps.

Encampment can also heighten competition over local natural resources, especially when land is appropriated from locals for camp construction. While resource scarcity can ratchet up tension among refugees as well as between refugees and local hosts, even meager aid provisions to refugees may serve to increase resentment among local hosts, based on perceptions that the refugees’ livelihoods are being privileged over their own.

Past research suggests that encampment can provoke and escalate tension amongst refugees, amongst hosts, and between refugees and host communities—but does it also increase the risk of deadly conflict? In an article recently published in a special issue of Journal of Peace Research, I examine whether—and under what conditions—camp-settlement is related to communal conflict for a broad sample of thirty-nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Using geographical data at the subnational level, I first investigate whether refugee encampment is associated with an increase in incidents of communal conflict in a location. Then, I look at whether more particular, local-level characteristics amplify the effect of camp settlement on communal conflict between identity-based groups.

The study has three primary findings. First, refugee encampment is a significant predictor of deadly communal conflict events—simply hosting a camp-settled refugee population is shown to increase the frequency of such events by about 82 percent.

Second, hosting refugee camps where a local host group is marginalized politically appears to amplify the rate of conflict. This may be due to the fact that, compared to those who are better represented, marginalized host groups in camp-hosting communities more acutely perceive and experience resource/aid scarcity and lack viable opportunities. Third, refugee encampment has a more pronounced effect on communal conflict when local hosts have ethnic ties to a group in the refugees’ origin country. This suggests that host groups may be more likely to perceive and cast the refugee presence as either a boon or a threat to their security, way of life, and relative power when such ethnic ties are present.

In follow-up tests, I examine whether local integration or “self-settlement”—as the primary alternative to camp-settlement—similarly increases the rate of local-level communal conflict in countries that host refugees. Notably, I find that self-settlement is related to significant decreases in the occurrence of communal conflict. These findings collectively indicate that, although refugee encampment is detrimental to refugee and host community security, non-camp approaches to hosting refugees are more encouraging. In particular, refugee self-settlement is shown to have conflict-dampening effects, though more work on the nature of this relationship is needed.

For years, scholars and aid agencies—including UNHCR—have advocated for alternatives to encampment. UNHCR maintains that refugees should be able to interact with local hosts and participate meaningfully in the local economy even if camp-settlement is unavoidable. Yet, with very few exceptions in the African context, refugees face severe restrictions on their freedom to move and find employment beyond camp settlements. Refugees in Tanzania, for example, generally are permitted to leave the immediate confines of their camps to collect firewood and other necessary resources, but are not permitted to move more than 4 kilometers outside the radius of their camp without a temporary movement permit. This increases refugees’ aid dependency and places greater demand on livelihood resources in the areas surrounding the camps.

My findings show that encampment policies increase insecurity for refugees and local hosts alike. At the same time, efforts to redress the marginalization of both refugees and hosts can help mitigate violent communal conflict in host societies. Recent efforts to promote the integration of refugees in ways that simultaneously support and benefit local hosts are thus a promising way forward.

Kerstin Fisk is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University.

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