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Displacement and small arms

Displacement and small arms

By the end of the 1990s, up to 40 million people had been violently forced to leave their homes, either by crossing a border and being officially documented as a refugee or, more likely, by being internally displaced within their own borders. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (2001a) estimates the number of refugees at 12.8 million and the Representative of the Secretary General for Internally Displaced People estimates the number of IDPs at between 20 million and 25 million ( Millions more fled before they could be counted, eschewing, in some cases, assistance and protection for fear of violent recrimination and social or economic marginalization. To be sure, 'refugees are only the tip of the iceberg of human suffering - at least twice the number of refugees are typically either internally displaced or trapped at home' (Leaning et al. 1999: xvi).

Not only is almost 1 per cent of the world's population designated as either internally displaced or refugee, but small arms intimidation represents a critical factor inhibiting sustainable repatriation or resettlement. Most refugees and IDPs appreciate the persuasive power of a single weapon. Agencies such as UNHCR (2001a: 283) have also recently noted that 'armed conflict is now the driving force behind most refugee flows'. The UN (1999: 2) has repeatedly observed that 'in many recent and current internal armed conflicts, combatants deliberately intimidate, attack and displace local populations to further their pursuit of economic control over natural resources. In such cases combatants rely on, and indeed profit from, civilian displacement.'

Table 4.1: Far From Home: Escaping From Violence
Country International refugees by country of origin Internally displaced persons (idps) in country of origin
Afghanistan 3,500,000 (2001) 500,000 (November 2001)
Angola 350,600 (2000) 3,000,000 (Since 1998)
Azerbaijan 309,400 (2000) 570,000 (October 2001)
Bosnia & Herzegovina 448,700 (2000) 518,000 (May 2001)
Burundi 525,700 (2000) 633,000 (October 2001)
Colombia 2,500 (2000) 2,200,000 (Since 1985)
Democratic Republic of Congo 248,400 (2000) 2,045,000 (October 2001)
Former Yugoslavia 121,100 (2000) 510,000 (May 2001)
India 110 (2000) 507,090 (November 2001)
Iraq 572,500 (2000) 700,000 (June 2001)
Kenya 5,000 (2000) 100,000 (December 2001)
Myanmar 127.800 (2000) 1,000,000 (June 2001)
Russian Federation 16,300 (2000) 500,000 (October 2001)
Rwanda 85,500 (2000) 600,000 (May 2001)
Sierra Leone 487,200 (2000) 1,300,000 (August 2001)
Sri Lanka 93,200 (2000) 800,000 (June 2001)
Sudan 467,700 (2000) 4,000,000 (May 2001)

Source: UNHCR (2000b, refugee figures); NRC (2001, IDP figures)

For example, in 1999 widespread violations of human rights occurred against ethnic Albanian Kosovars in the course of mass deportations by the Serbian army, leading to NATO's 78-day air war. A survey carried out by Iacopino and Waldman (1999) notes that more than 30 per cent of all Kosovar households reported at least one of the following abuses among members: shooting, threat at gunpoint, firearm homicide, torture, beating, separation, disappearance, and sexual assault (

Similarly, as a result of the sheer scale and lethality of armed violence in Rwanda, between 25 per cent and 40 per cent of the Rwandan population was displaced, and more than 500,000 refugees spilled across the country's borders following the genocide (Melvern 2000, Human Rights Watch 1994). The violence there has not stopped. In Rwanda, testimonial evidence documents how groups of armed men massacre civilian refugees in clinics and makeshift hospitals across the border in (the former) Zaire (

Indirect impacts of small arms on displaced people

From Srebrenica to Goma, some of the worst small arms-related violations against civilians have taken place against refugees and IDPs during transit or in safe-areas. This is largely because settlements populated by displaced people are highly insecure. They are typically close to an international border or located on desolate or isolated tracts of land. A large part of the humanitarian response to complex emergencies, such as those in Colombia, Sudan, and Sri Lanka, is devoted to ensuring the safety of displaced people who are frequently vulnerable to rampant crime and violence after they have temporarily resettled.

In Colombia, estimates of the IDP population range from 400,000 to 2.2 million (, see also Loughna 2002). Disputes over the actual number of IDPs reveal just how inadequate surveillance capacities can be, as well as the state's political reluctance to respond. A large proportion of Colombian displacement can be attributed to massacres; 90 per cent of atrocities committed by the military, paramilitary, or guerrilla actors are reportedly carried out with small arms ( IDPs continue to be targeted long after being displaced, often being coerced into precarious and arms-saturated settlements to face destitution, continued persecution, or a life of crime (

It is well-known that locating a refugee or IDP camp near a border conflict zone will never allow the settlement to be permanent and free of 'refugee warriors' or armed actors. The case of Kenya is illustrative. In both of Kenya's 'official' refugee camps - Dadaab and Kakuma - over 200,000 Sudanese, Ethiopian, Somali, and Central African refugees are subjected to armed violence on a daily basis. According to reports issued by the Integrated Regional Information Network (, there is a 'very strong possibility' that the camps are being used to traffic arms: 'there have been shooting incidents in the camps ... it is easy for people to move around with arms on that border [with Somalia] because there is no control [in Somalia]'.

A study commissioned by UNHCR observed that refugee women collecting firewood in refugee camps such as Dadaab and Kakuma (in Kenya) are regularly raped at gunpoint by armed assailants ( In 2000, there were an estimated 72 reported rape cases compared with 142 in 1998. UNHCR has managed to reduce the number of rapes by having wood trucked into the camps. But only an estimated 30 per cent of firewood needs are being met. Women remain vulnerable to armed attack and more than 150 informal police reservists have been deployed to police the camp.

Table 4.2: Security incidents in a Kenyan refugee camp: 1996-2000*
Firearm deaths Armed assault Armed robbery Rape
1996 15 64 67 2
1997 12 61 73 2
1998 6 114 110 6
1999 11 110 104 0
2000 5 70 90 4

*The refugee population in Kakuma has remained relatively steady: between 70,000 and 72,000 refugees.

These risks, made possible by the sheer abundance of military-style weapons, hastened a shift in strategy by humanitarian and development agencies. Though many have refused to engage in military protection, others have felt no other solution was viable. For example, in response to increasing camp militarization, key interventions called for by UNHCR (2000: 1-2) include 'disarming exiled groups who have access to weapons and curtailing any flow of arms into refugee populated areas ... [and] disarming exiled soldiers and other armed elements, and ensuring their violently displaced people are prone to acute morbidity from disease such as measles, respiratory infections, and malaria. This is most severe among young children, as documented below. Nor are adults immune. A recent study of IDPs in Guinea Bissau discovered that patients with tuberculosis whose treatment was disrupted because of war were three times as likely to die as those who were fully treated in peacetime (Gustafson et al. 2001).

Other diseases often re-emerge as a result of arms-related violence. Sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) was thought to have been eliminated in the 1960s, but population displacement and the collapse of health systems as a result of civil wars have caused a resurgence of the disease. It is precisely those countries affected by protracted armed violence - southern Sudan, Sierra Leone, and the DRC - that are reported to be among the worst affected areas: more than 150,591 new cases of sleeping sickness have been detected during the past decade (Dobson 2001). Internal conflicts, such as those that have taken place in the Balkans and Angola, also threaten the eradication of poliomyelitis (Bush 2000, Ebersol 2000).

According to reports by UNICEF (2001), 'polio immunization campaigns have been hampered because of the conflict ... Records have been lost and people have been constantly on the move. The whole infrastructure is having to be replaced.' In Somalia, despite being selected according to clan loyalty, 650 vaccinators taking part in a WHO/UNICEF campaign failed to successfully immunize the population: 'in one area, the chief of the subsection said he would shoot any vaccinators who came because we hadn't recruited anyone from his sub-district' (IRIN 2000b). The introduction of 'humanitarian ceasefire' represents one innovative response undertaken by the UN to allow for increased immunization and vaccination of children in conflict.

Militarized refugee camps

The militarization of refugee camps presents a problem to the country of origin, to the country of asylum or temporary settlement, and to the international community. Particularly in refugee-hosting countries, the presence of small arms in refugee camps and the growing security burden has resulted in a decline in offers for asylum as 'hosting refugees is perceived to be a threat to state security'. At the very least, the use of small arms in camps raises concerns regarding the obligation of UNHCR and its implementing partners to protect refugees, and the extent to which it can intervene to control arms flows into and out of the temporary settlements.

Refugee camps located in or near conflicts are often vulnerable to armed insecurity threatening, on the one hand, displaced people and host communities and, on the other, humanitarian workers. Similarly, refugee camps have been targeted by domestic and foreign security forces - and used as 'training grounds' and recruiting bases for non-state actors. In some cases, host governments have supported the use of refugee camps for cross-border counter-insurgency activities - as in Ethiopian camps in Eastern Sudan, Afghan camps in Pakistan, Khmer camps in Thailand, and Salvadoran and Nicaraguan camps in Honduras.

For example, between August 1994 and August 1995 former Rwandan military and militia groups in Eastern DRC accumulated arms from both allied foreign governments and private sources in violation of a UN arms embargo. Refugee camps were used to supply and accommodate armed actors. Once these armed forces had regrouped and been trained, the camps became launching pads for cross-border military operations against adversaries back in Rwanda. With the failure of the international community to redress the problem of militarized camps - the Rwanda government and allied forces attacked the settlements - resulting in a new phase of regional conflict that persists to this day.

Camps become a 'security problem' when they lose their civilian nature or are controlled by armed actors. Countries adjacent to war zones serve as key trans-shipment points for recipients: examples include Kenya and Uganda for Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and Eastern Congo; Dar Es Salaam for Rwanda and Burundi; Zambia for Angola (UNITA); and Somalia for Eritrea and Ethiopia. But supplier countries also experience 'blowback' - as weapons earlier shipped to fuel wars in neighbouring countries are trafficked back into the country of shipment.

In Kenya, significant numbers of weapons that were once used in Sudan, Somalia, and Uganda are being trafficked back into the refugee camps and surrounding areas of Turkana (Kakuma) and the north-east (Dadaab's Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera). Widespread social violence in Northern Kenya is sustained by clan warfare and disputes over cattle, as well as political interests in the capital. In these camps, UNHCR reports indicate that 'security incidents involving death and injury take place on a daily basis' (see Austin 2002). Within the camps themselves, bullets and guns have become a form of convertible currency - part and parcel of a 'gun economy'. They've been absorbed into local customary livelihoods - a lethal addition to traditional conflicts over livestock, water, and grazing rights and inter-communal relations. Furthermore, clan-based militias and arms syndicates are gradually replacing clan elders as key units of political organization. A study carried out by the UN IASC also indicated alarming trends in Kakuma (

The UNHCR and its implementing partners have a stake in preventing instability that leads to forced displacement as well as armed insecurity in protracted refugee situations. The organization recognizes that curtailing the protection, sale, or transfer of small arms would contribute to greater stability and security - reducing the incentive of people to flee in the first place. In response to growing threats to refugees in camp situations, UNHCR has begun to deploy international police advisors to improve security and law enforcement capacities (e.g., to Kosovo Albanian camps as well as Burundian camps in Tanzania). In many cases, UNHCR has hired host-country soldiers to ensure security in the camps - or funded firewood collection programmes to reduce the risk of women to armed violence. It has also established a Permanent Working Group on Safety - as well as Camp Security Surveys.

American Bar Association Study on Killings and Displacement in Kosovo
Human Rights in Burma
Norwegian Refugee Council IDP Database
Small Arms Survey
United States Committee for Refugees
Austin, K., 2002.
Goose, S. and Smyth F.,'Arming Genocide in Rwanda''Arming Genocide in Rwanda'. Foreign Affairs, vol. 73, no. 5, 1994.
Muggah, R. and Berman, E.,Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Study for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Small Arms.Humanitarianism Under Threat: The Humanitarian Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons. Study for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Reference Group on Small Arms. New York: IASC, 2001.
Muggah, R. with Griffiths, M.,'Reconsidering the Tools of War: Small Arms and Humanitarian Action''Reconsidering the Tools of War: Small Arms and Humanitarian Action'. HPN Network Paper, 38. London: ODI, 2002.
Last updated Aug 17, 2011