“Why in the world do East African refugees tend to settle near borders? Deciphering the perplexing war strategy behind it all”

On May 17, 2023, the exodus of Congolese refugees through the Bunagana border with Uganda amidst conflict between M23 rebels and DRC government forces was captured in a striking photo. This occurrence is all too common in African refugee camps, which are home to nearly four million people. A significant percentage of these camps are situated within 30-50 kilometers of an international border, making it easy for people on both sides to interact. Though this may seem like a positive aspect, it also enables rebel groups to access and benefit from refugees. These groups take advantage of the refugees’ vulnerability and dependence on aid, as well as informally taxing them by taking a share of the aid or demanding contributions. The lack of action by host countries to prevent this exploitation is explained by the fact that the placement of refugee camps is often strategic, driven by foreign policy interests. This creates a constant flow of resources and people from the camps to the front lines, providing rebel groups with more bargaining power. While aid organizations can work to negotiate alternatives to make the camps safer for refugees, these alternatives may undermine the foreign policy goals of the host countries, making them less receptive to change. Ultimately, refugee policy is not solely influenced by domestic concerns, but also geopolitical factors and foreign policy interests that shape the context in which refugees are placed and the extent of their exploitation by rebel groups.

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