Going Home to Fight? Explaining Refugee Return and Violence

Led by Kristian Berg Harpviken
Jan 2008 - Dec 2012

​​​​This project examines why some returning refugees come to destabilize the peace process in their home country upon return, whereas others do not. The potential for violent mobilization amongst refugees was firmly placed on the agenda through the concept ‘refugee warriors’. 

Sarah Kenyon Lischer has estimated that militarization is significant in some 15-20% of all refugee populations. Furthermore, it is clear that most refugee warriorism aims at political power in the country of origin. Nonetheless, the potential for threats to peace due to returnee mobilization has remained unaddressed, by academics and policymakers alike.

Forced migration provides fertile ground for violent collective action. This may seem obvious today, but when the term ‘refugee warriors’ was launched in the latter half of the 1980s, it was highly controversial. The term was coined by Astri Suhrke, and introduced through the collaborative work by Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergio Aguayo, in particular in the book Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (Cambridge University Press, 1989). The term brought attention to an important, yet so far neglected, aspect of displacement.

Despite the fact that a proportion of the returnees are (current or former) fighters, the two are dealt with as separate categories of people – in the academic literature as well as by policymakers and practitioners. Furthermore, the return of refugees - all assumed to be ‘civilians’ - is seen to signify a successful peace process. The possible negative impact of refugee return on the post-conflict situation is often discussed as a question of ‘absorptive capacity’. More dramatically, however, rapid return may threaten the viability of peace if returning refugees are actual fighters or are mobilized as fighters upon return. If so, the returnees themselves may represent a security threat, and hence undermine a peace process.

The project aims at mapping the mechanisms by which returning refugees engage in violence in their country of origin. We look at a subset of returnees – those from refugee populations where military mobilization has been prevalent – and explore the mechanisms by which they come to engage militarily, or not, upon return. Five types of factors are dominant in explaining returnee mobilization:

  1. The nature of the peace;
  2. support from other states;
  3. social cohesion among returnees and with those still in exile;
  4. humanitarian support from external sources; and
  5. economic opportunities at home.

Each of these has both local and transnational aspects. The nature of the peace, for example, is about the commitment of domestic groups, the stance of transnational non-state actors, and the buy-in from neighboring states.

The project has been funded by a grant (2008-2011) from the Research Council of Norway, with additional funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2012–). The project has an ambitious publication plan, and will culminate in a book that conveys the results of five case studies (Afghanistan, Cambodia, Darfur/Sudan, Liberia and Rwanda) as well as an overarching analytical framework and the generic conclusions. Findings will also be conveyed in a series of four policy briefs, aimed at a broader audience of policy-makers and practitioners in refugee management, peacemaking and peacebuilding.

Research Groups


Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Lischer, Sarah (2011) Civil War, Genocide and Political Order in Rwanda: Security Implications of Refugee Return, Conflict, Security & Development 11(3): 261–284.
Naftalin, Mark (2011) A New Rwanda?, The World Today 67(7): 22–24.
Naftalin, Mark (2011) Beyond Southern Sudan, The World Today 67(1): 16–17.


Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2009) Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Book Chapter

Harpviken, Kristian Berg & Sarah Lischer (2013) Refugee Militancy in Exile and Upon Return in Afghanistan and Rwanda, in Jeffrey T. Checkel, ed., Transnational Dynamics of Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (89–119).
Naftalin, Mark (2012) Darfur, in The Oxford Companion to American Politics. New York: Oxford University Press (249–254).
Naftalin, Mark (2012) Darfur, in The Oxford Companion to Comparative Politics. New York: Oxford University Press (273–278).
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2010) The Return of the Refugee Warrior: Migration and Armed Resistance in Herat, in Schlenkhoff, Angela; & Ceri Oeppen, eds, Beyond the Wild Tribes: Understanding Modern Afghanistan and its Diaspora. London: (121–137).

Non-refereed Journal Article

Naftalin, Mark (2011) Report on the South Sudan Referendum , Sudan Studies Association Bulletin 29(1): 20–22.

Popular Article

Harpviken, Kristian Berg & Mark Naftalin (2012) Conflating Spaces: Syrian Rebels and Refugees in South Turkey, ISN Security Watch, 18 September.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg & Mark Naftalin (2012) Militarisering av flyktningene [Militarization amongst refugees], Dagsavisen, 29 August.
Naftalin, Mark (2011) Liberia under a Nobel Laureate, The Africa Report, 13 December.
Naftalin, Mark (2011) Liberia etter Nobelprisen [Liberia after the Nobel Prize], Dagbladet, 9 December.
Lischer, Sarah (2011) No Refuge for Somali Refugees, Huffington Post, 4 November.
Lischer, Sarah (2011) Why Western Aid Won't Save Somalia, Huffington Post, 9 August.

Conference Paper

Naftalin, Mark 2011 Refugees and Regionalism, .
Harpviken, Kristian Berg 2010 Refugee Return and Violence in Afghanistan, presented at ISA Annual Convention 2010, , 17 February.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg; & Lischer, Sarah 2009 Refugee Return and Violence: An Analytical Framework, presented at Mobilizing Across Borders: Transnational Mechanisms of Civil War, , 16 October.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg; & Lischer, Sarah 2009 Refugee Return and Violence: An Analytical Framework, presented at 50th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, , 17 February.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2008) What is Special about Refugee Warriors?Center for Global Studies, George Mason University, Arlington, VA, 18 April.

PRIO Policy Brief

Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2016) Exile Socialization, PRIO Policy Brief, 7. Oslo: PRIO.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2016) ‘Voting with Their Feet’ or Returning to Fight?, PRIO Policy Brief, 9. Oslo: PRIO.
Harpviken, Kristian Berg & Benjamin Onne Yogev (2016) Syria’s Internally Displaced and the Risk of Militarization, PRIO Policy Brief, 6. Oslo: PRIO.
Naftalin, Mark & Kristian Berg Harpviken (2012) Rebels and Refugees: Syrians in Southern Turkey, PRIO Policy Brief, 10. Oslo: PRIO.

Report - External Series

Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2008) From 'Refugee Warriors' to 'Returnee Warriors: Militant Homecoming in Afghanistan and Beyond, Global Migration and Transnational Politics Working Paper , 5. Arlington, VA: Center for Global Studies, George Mason University.

Book Review

Lischer, Sarah (2009) Review of The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle East, in The Middle East Journal 63(3): 508–509.

Past Events


Related pages