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SAIS Review 25.2 (2005) 187-190

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Connections and Consequences

Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid, by Sarah Kenyon Lischer. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005). 220 pages. $35.00.

Refugee crises across the globe have resulted from, and increasingly contributed to, the spread of civil wars. As the pattern of violence involving refugees continues, greater attention has fallen on the interplay between international actors, humanitarian aid and conflict. In Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid, Sarah Kenyon Lischer examines the relationships between refugee populations, their states of origin and reception, other actors in the international community, and the promulgation of intrastate conflict. She provides a thought-provoking analysis that should stimulate analysts and policymakers to rethink their approaches to the problems associated with providing support to people fleeing conflict.

Lischer argues that traditional socioeconomic explanations of the factors motivating rebels fail to account accurately for the variation in outcomes in refugee-related violence. If we are to understand better why conflict flourishes in some cases and does not in others, we must apply more systematic models that are more explicitly political in nature; Lischer does so, drawing upon data from crises in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Central Africa for her critique and offering potential policy prescriptions, designed to curtail the cycles of violence affecting and involving refugee populations.

Starting from the observation that fleeing populations sometimes contribute to and spread conflict, Lischer examines the roles refugee camps can play in conflict: by their very existence they can provide a degree of legitimacy for rebel causes; they can serve as bases for rebel fighters and their families; they can provide sources of funding for rebel movements; and they can fulfill a number of policy functions for both their host states and states of origin. As she points out, refugee populations playing a role in the spread of conflict is not a new phenomenon, nor is the use of refugee populations by various state actors to further their own goals. In numerous cases throughout the Cold War, relief efforts by various state and non-state actors served in an active political role, and humanitarian actors associated with those efforts saw their reputations for neutrality eroded as a result. The post-Cold War era has seen a dramatic drop in the political value of refugee conflicts to global powers, as well as in the direct involvement of those powers in relief efforts. As a result, humanitarian organizations are often the primary agents engaged in current refugee relief efforts, but they are not seen as neutral by most parties either. As Lischer observes, attempting to provide services without taking into [End Page 187] account the historical and current political context of both relief efforts and the conflicts that precipitated a crisis proves at best naïve.

While others1 have addressed the mixed role of humanitarian assistance in refugee crises, in her work, Lischer methodically employs a more specifically political model of analysis in an effort to answer three primary questions: how to predict the role of refugee communities in violent conflict based upon an analysis of the prevailing conditions of the specific situation; how to respond to groups determined to co-opt humanitarian relief efforts for their own ends; and how to understand the role states can play in reducing or preventing the continuation and proliferation of refugee-oriented conflict. This approach aims to move beyond efforts that primarily address the symptoms of crises in a relatively universal ad hoc manner – it does this by establishing a framework that, while broadly applicable, also takes into account the differences in the political, economic and military dynamics particular to each refugee crisis.

There are essentially four strains of argument that compose the conventional socioeconomic explanations for refugee-based violence, according to Lischer. Very large camps tend to promote violence as they are purportedly harder to control, camps close to sending-state borders allow for easier cross-border raids by camp-based rebels, camps with large populations of young men are more likely to be...


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