Peace Science Digest

What Makes Some Refugees More Likely to be Approached for Armed Group Recruitment?

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Haer, R. & Hecker, T. (2018). Recruiting refugees for militarization: The determinants of mobilization attempts. Journal of Refugee Studies, 32(1), 1-22.

Talking Points

In the context of male Congolese refugees in a Ugandan refugee camp:

  • To overcome limited information about the people they wish to mobilize into armed group—namely their willingness and capacity to be fighters—recruiters may rely on “signals” they observe in these individuals to decide whom to approach for recruitment.
  • Refugees who exhibited a greater degree of relative economic deprivation, who knew someone who had been recruited into an armed group, or who had previous combat experience were more likely than others to be approached for recruitment into armed groups.
  • Strong ethnic identification on the part of refugees played a less important role in recruitment attempts than anticipated.


One of the most common reasons given by host governments to restrict the flow of refugees is the supposed security threat posed by the presence of refugees within one’s country. Although politicians have exaggerated this security threat for political gain—as noted elsewhere in this issue, refugees are often themselves subjected to violence rather than the cause of it—it is still worthwhile to examine those cases where members of the refugee community are mobilized for participation in armed groups in order to understand how best to limit such mobilization. Previous research on refugee recruitment has focused mostly on general, structural conditions (e.g., the characteristics of the host country, the relationship between the host and home countries, or the geographic and other features of particular refugee camps) to explain the militarization of refugee populations but has largely neglected refugees’ individual-level characteristics that might make them more attractive targets for recruitment. Rather than seeing refugees as indistinguishable—each one equally susceptible to militarization once they are in a refugee camp—the authors are interested in examining what makes some refugees more likely than others to be approached by recruiters.

The authors contend that recruiters face a problem when seeking refugees to recruit into armed groups that is similar to that faced by others who need to “hire an agent…to perform a certain task”: they do not know whether the individual being selected has the qualities needed for the task at hand. Recruiters may have limited information about which refugeeswould actually be willing and capable fighters. This problem is particularly acute in this context, since recruiters are trying to recruit refugees for an illicit activity, so being wrong about a recruit could be risky for the recruiter or the armed group. Theoretically, to address this problem, “recruiters can…gain valuable information about new recruits” by observing features of these recruits that convey information about their likely willingness to participate in an armed group. Based on these theoretical assumptions, the authors argue that “recruiters will highly likely only approach those refugees who signal a (high) level of willingness for militarization.”

But which characteristics do recruiters look for in refugees that signal this willingness to militarize? The authors focus on four characteristics in particular: a high level of ethnic (in-group/out-group) identification, a high level of relative economic deprivation, a feeling of insecurity in the refugee camp, and knowing someone in one’s social network who has already been recruited by an armed group. The thinking is that these factors will make someone more likely to join an armed group—and therefore recruiters are more likely to approach individuals who exhibit these characteristics. To investigate the relationship between these factors and recruitment attempts, the authors focus on the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda where, in 2014, they conducted 285 interviews with male Congolese refugees, the demographic in the camp most often targeted by recruitment efforts (though the camp also hosted refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, and Somalia). Through statistical analysis, and controlling for additional factors such as age, previous exposure to violence, and previous combat experience, they find that relative economic deprivation (as perceived by the refugees themselves), knowing someone who has been recruited into an armed group, and previous combat experience (one of the control variables) are related to recruitment attempts. In other words, refugees exhibiting these characteristics are more likely than others to be approached for armed group recruitment. (It is important to clarify that this finding says nothing about those who are actually more likely to join armed groups.) Strong ethnic identification plays a less important role in recruitment attempts than anticipated.

The authors note a few caveats that should be considered along with these findings. First, interview respondents who were approached for recruitment necessarily include only those people who had not (yet) left the refugee camp to enlist with armed groups, so they represent either individuals who did not agree to join armed groups or individuals who did agree but were still awaiting marching orders. Although the former possibility would mean a systematic bias in the research towards those approached for recruitment who decided against militarization, the authors have reason to believe that at least some were those who were awaiting orders to leave. Second, it is important to consider the specific conditions that apply in a refugee camp setting in a country bordering refugees’ country of origin and how recruitment might play out differently with refugees in a non-camp setting or in a country further away from the country of origin.

Informing Practice

Practically speaking, the findings in this research—though drawn from the specific context of a refugee camp in Uganda—highlight the attention that should be given to economic deprivation, social networks, and previous combat experience when policy-makers consider how to address the problem of military recruitment among refugee populations. Although refugees present the same variation in humanity found anywhere else—some eager fighters but many more folks just interested in raising their families and getting by—the finding here on relative economic deprivation underscores the element of vulnerability that might make some refugees more susceptible to military recruitment. As is the case more broadly, those who are economically precarious may appear to be easier “prey” for military recruiters than those with more options for their livelihoods. As the authors note, this provides yet another good reason for smart policies around micro-economic development and job creation in refugee communities. (See Lenner & Turner’s research elsewhere in this issue for a discussion of one such program called the Jordan Compact.) Everyone wins as refugees become economically empowered in their host countries. The authors also recommend that host governments coordinate targeted counter-recruitment efforts around the social networks of those who have already been recruited and among former combatants to decrease the chances that individuals from either risk group will also be recruited.

There is a fine line, however, between benign violence prevention activities and repressive monitoring and profiling of “at-risk” communities as part of a broader counterterrorism or counterinsurgency strategy. Perhaps the measure of a benign policy should be whether it is desirable in and of itself for the individuals involved regardless of the violence/recruitment prevention benefit it may bring. Do the counter-recruitment efforts support and empower refugees or supplant their agency and limit their options? In addition, as other research in this issue (Savun & Gineste) reminds us, it is all too easy for host countries to fall into the pattern of seeing and marking refugees as a security threat, making them more vulnerable to violence themselves. So, any efforts undertaken to limit the likelihood of refugee recruitment into armed groups among former combatants or friends/family members of current recruits should take pains to emphasize the humanity of the refugee population and the way the vast majority of that population is made up of individuals just trying to build better lives for their families. Furthermore, rather than displacing all concerns about danger and insecurity onto populations that come from “outside,” concerned parties should turn the same amount of energy and attention devoted to preventing recruitment among refugees back onto counter-recruitment efforts among host citizens themselves, both into non-state armed groups and into national militaries.

Continued Reading 

Seeley, M. (2019, February 10). Dignity and the needs of young Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Retrieved July 25, 2019, from 

Koser, K. (2015, February 20). IDPs, refugees, and violent extremism: From victims to vectors of change. Brookings. 

Martin-Rayo, F. (2011). Countering radicalization in refugee camps: How education can help defeat AQAP. Working Paper, The Dubai Initiative, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 


Mercy Corps:  

American Friends Service Committee (Counterrecruitment program): 

War Resisters League (Counter-recruitment program): 

Keywords: recruitment, militarization, refugees, refugee camps, economic deprivation, combat experience, social networks, armed groups

The following analysis appears in the Special Issue on Refugees & Migrants in Volume 4 of the Peace Science Digest.