Dangerous Sanctuaries:
Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid

Sarah Kenyon Lischer

Cornell University Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 https://dannyreviews.com/
Refugee camps and the crises associated with them often lead to or aggravate wars. To understand how and when this happens, Lischer argues in Dangerous Sanctuaries that we need an analysis that is primarily political rather than socioeconomic or humanitarian.

One key factor is the relationship between refugees and the sending state. Here Lischer classifies refugees as "situational", fleeing general violence or calamity, as a persecuted minority, facing targeted attacks, or as a "state in exile", effectively the losing side in a civil war. The other key factor is whether the receiving state is willing to enforce demilitarisation, and if so, capable of doing that. In contrast, Lischer downplays the significance of socioeconomic factors such as the size of camps, their distance from the border, the proportion of young men and the presence of employment or alternative occupations.

Lischer's primary concern is with the role of humanitarian agencies and other international actors, who often end up indirectly or directly providing aid to militants and aggravating violence, through blindness to or ignorance of the political context.

This analysis is given flesh by three detailed case studies, all of which attempt comparative analysis. The Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been the subject of widespread media attention, but those in Iran have been largely forgotten. In Pakistan, the state and international supporters encouraged militarisation of refugees as a weapon against the Soviets. In contrast, refugees equally hostile to the Afghan government were prevented by Iran from militarising — and integrated into urban areas, which in this case provides an alternative socioeconomic explanation.

In Central Africa, Rwandan refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were controlled by Hutu militants, many fresh from recent genocide, with support from Mobutu (and France). Humanitarian agencies largely ignored this, providing food directly to militia members, sustaining their supporters, and helping to legitimise their cause; this ultimately contributed to spreading war in the DRC and across the region. There is an obvious comparison with Rwandan refugees in Tanzania, who were otherwise similar but were contained and prevented from militarising — and with Burundian refugees in Tanzania, whose military activities were tacitly accepted.

The third study looks at one group in the conflicts surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia, at Muslims led by Fikret Abdic who rebelled against the Sarajevo government of Bosnia, In 1994 they fled from Velika Kladusa to the Serbian-controlled Republic of Krajina, from which they were supported by the Serbians in a successful attack on the Bosnian 5th Corp in Bihac. In 1995 they were forced out again into the same region, now controlled by the Croatians, who though sympathetic needed to maintain diplomatic relations with Sarajevo and Washington and prevented the refugee camps being used as military bases.

All of this has clear implications for political actors as well, but in her final chapter Lischer focuses on the implications for humanitarian agencies. There are rarely going to be simple solutions, but her recommendations include separating noncivilians from refugees, trying to find quick solutions to avoid protracted crises, building security partnerships with the receiving state, trying to influence the internal leadership structure of the refugees, and improving dissemination of information to counter propaganda. Withdrawal has to be considered as an ultimate sanction, despite the ethical and moral dilemmas it poses and the problems of coordination between multiple agencies.

Lischer's typology is useful, but some of her case studies seem rather to demonstrate that the military and diplomatic concerns of an ongoing war are likely to override other factors. It is arguably tautological that a "capable" and "willing" receiving state will prevent militarisation, for example, while it is perfectly possible for a "capable" and "differently willing" state to militarise even situational refugees through forced conscription. This minor quibble, however, really only reinforces Lischer's basic argument that the political context of refugee crises is fundamental.

Dangerous Sanctuaries should be read by anyone involved with NGO or government responses to refugee crises.

May 2009

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%T Dangerous Sanctuaries
%S Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid
%A Lischer, Sarah Kenyon
%I Cornell University Press
%D 2005
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780801473418
%P 204pp