Peace Science Made Accessible, Understandable, and Useful.

Does Increasing the Number of UN Peacekeepers Prevent Forced Displacement?

Does Increasing the Number of UN Peacekeepers Prevent Forced Displacement?

Photo credit: UNMISS 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Sundberg, R. (2020). UN peacekeeping and forced displacement in South Sudan. International Peacekeeping, 27(2), 210-237. DOI: 10.1080/13533312.2019.1676642 

Talking Points  

In the context of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) 

  • An increase in the number of peacekeepers in an area did not reduce the number of incidences of forced displacement or the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing that same area 
  • There is weak evidence that an increase in the number of peacekeepers in an area attracted IDPs to nearby Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites, suggesting that the presence of UN peacekeepers acts as a “pull factor” for IDPs 
  • The increase in peacekeeping mission size did not appear to boost peacekeepers deterrence capacity, as their increased presence, positioning, and offensive military capability did not lead to a reduction in forced displacement events, many of which may have been caused by violence.  


 Does the presence of UN peacekeeping in a country experiencing violent conflict reduce the number of civilians displaced by violence? Looking at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) between 2011 and 2017, Ralph Sundberg examines whether the size and in-country location of the peacekeeping mission affects civilian displacement. He finds no evidence that an increase in peacekeeping troop size in a particular area lowers the number of forced displacement events in that area or the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing that area. However, he does find weak evidence that higher numbers of peacekeepers in a particular area act as a “pull factor” for displaced people, meaning that IDPs choose where to flee based on their assessment of relative security and protection provided by UNMISS. Finally, the author argues that these findings challenge the equation of “mission size with deterrent capacity,” as this case study suggests an increased number of peacekeepers may not have resulted in improved civilian protection 

Forced displacement event: “a reported incident of mass displacement, with ‘mass’ signifying that it was large enough to be noticed and recorded by humanitarian organizations.” Could have any number of causes, including an act of violence, the perceived threat of violence, or other forms of insecurity like lack of food or jobs.

The author develops a few hypotheses to test the relationship between UNMISS deployment and forced displacement in South Sudan. The first two hypotheses relate to the “deterrence capacity” of UN peacekeeping, namely the presumption that the presence, positioning, and offensive military capability of peacekeepers increases the cost of violence for armed groups that target civilian populations. According to this logic, the presence of peacekeepers improves the local security situation and influences civilians’ choice to remain. As such, the first hypothesis states that increasing peacekeeping troop size in an area will reduce the likelihood of forced displacement events in that area. The second hypothesis states that increasing the number of peacekeepers in an area will reduce the number of people displaced from that area. The final hypothesis examines peacekeepers as a “pull factor” for forced displacement. Due to the protection and livelihood opportunities presented around UN bases, the third hypothesis states that areas with higher numbers of peacekeepers will attract more displaced people from other areas. Civilians’ assumption that more peacekeepers will provide greater security influences their choice to flee towards peacekeepers.    

To test these hypotheses, the author developed an original dataset on forced displacement and UNMISS mission size and location. Data on forced displacement was sourced from “situation reports, bulletins, and humanitarian updates” and was manually coded by the county in South Sudan where the event occurred. In total, some 600 forced displacement events were included in the database, resulting in 4.2 million IDPs and refugees. Data on peacekeeping missions was sourced from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Integrated Rapid Needs Assessment (IRNA), Humanitarian Response, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Based off this data, the author also measured the size of the peacekeeping mission by county population and landmass size to understand their “magnitude of responsibility.”  

The author finds no evidence that increasing the number of peacekeepers decreases the number of discrete forced displacement events or the number of IDPs. These findings suggest that, counter to existing theory, a larger number of peacekeepers does not result in a greater deterrence effect that prevents violence against civilians. Interestingly, these findings align with existing critiques of UNMISS highlighted by several UN reports cited in this research—namely, that both rebel groups and government forces “[had] no qualms about attacking locations where UNMISS [was] present,” and, that in several locations, “UNMISS failed to intervene or interposition themselves” between civilians and armed groups. In part, this failure to protect civilians can be attributed to UNMISS having to obtain consent from the South Sudanese government to deploy in-country, exerting a constraint on UNMISS’s protection mandate.

As for the final hypothesis, there is weak evidence to support the hypothesis that IDPs flee to areas with larger numbers of peacekeepers. In South Sudan, this means that Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites may have attracted IDPs fleeing from violence in other areas of South Sudan, despite evidence of violence against civilians at these locations. However, the author notes that, “compared to impromptu IDP camps, PoC sites offer better opportunities for survival.”

The author cautions that this research does not necessarily conclude that peacekeeping has zero effect on reducing forced displacement, as the lack of results may instead be due to “data imbalances.” Nonetheless, these findings suggest a need for more systematic, context-specific testing on the effectiveness of troop size and other characteristics of UN peacekeeping.

Informing Practice

This research is pertinent to the recent decision by UNMISS and the government of South Sudan to redesignate the PoC site in Bor as a camp for IDPs and transfer the control of the camp to the South Sudanese government. It appears that the decision was based on the improved security situation in the area and the relative stability observed at five PoC sites based on an assessment conducted by UNMISS and humanitarian partners. In addition, UNMISS felt the urgency of protecting people whose lives are in immediate danger in other localities. The decision by the UN to hand over the camps to government forces who have been accused of causing harm to the very people they are supposed to protect is worrisome. UNMISS consulted on the transition process with the state and national authorities who may be responsible for the flight of the displaced population in the first place. But without acknowledgement of harm caused and without ensuring civilian protection from the government of South Sudan, this decision may further endanger the safety and security of the vulnerable displaced population whose fate is now in the hands of the government officials they view with suspicion and fear. Despite its shortcomings, UNMISS has a better record of protecting civilians than the government forces—while peacekeepers may not have exerted a deterrence effect, they did not actively target or directly harm civilians. For example, UNMISS PoC sites gave physical protection to over 200,000 civilians who were at a greater risk of atrocities. In addition, the very presence of UNMISS as an impartial witness to violence reduces the likelihood of blame games and blame avoidance on the part of perpetrators. For all these reasons, it is concerning that UNMISS is handing over control of this PoC site to the government. As noted in this research, civilians may look to such PoC sites for safety, and UNMISS risks letting these civilians down by handing over control of these sites.

At the same time, as this research shows, an increase in peacekeeping troops does not always lead to deterrence of violence, which demonstrates the inadequacy of purely military solutions to conflict. Over the last three decades in South Sudan, the use of military force to resolve major conflicts has never brought lasting peace; rather, it has further militarized the society, fueling cycles of violence. The UNMISS mission’s inability to stop violence calls for a reexamination of UN peacekeeping, specifically with a view towards promoting peacebuilding initiatives in the country rather than contributing to the deeper militarization of South Sudan.Luckily, there are more options for addressing violence and building peace in South Sudan beyond the false choice presented between the use of government security forces or UNMISS peacekeepers. There are political solutions and nonviolent means of ending conflict such as the use of dialogue and mediation mechanisms facilitated by community elders, influential traditional leaders, community-based organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and faith-based organizations such as the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC). For more immediate security concerns, there is the alternative of unarmed civilian protection (UCP). Nonviolent Peaceforce provides a notable example of this work in South Sudan for the past decade, where both international teams and local women’s protection teams have prevented violence and protected civilians while also contributing to social cohesion rather than greater militarization. Instead of continuing to invest in military forms of peacekeeping that have failed to demonstrate their effectiveness in preventing violence and displacement, the international community should start investing more in similarly innovative, nonviolent forms of community protection.  [MH]

Continued Reading

 Peace Science Digest. (2019, September 6). Special issue: Refugees and migrants. Retrieved on December 11, 2020, from 

Peace Science Digest. (2018, November 12). Lessons learned from unsuccessful conflict intervention strategies in South Sudan. Retrieved on December 11, 2020, from

Peace Science Digest. (2020, January 20). Violence, intergroup bias, and dehumanization in South Sudan. Retrieved on December 11, 2020, from

International Peace Institute. (2020, February). Prioritization and sequencing of peacekeeping mandates: The case of UNMISS. Retrieved on December 11, 2020, from  

Nonviolent Peaceforce. (2020, June). Preventing and responding to violence in Juba PoC (South Sudan). Retrieved on December 19, 2020, from–_new_photo.pdf

Nonviolent Peaceforce. (2020, February). Strengthening local peace and protection mechanisms in Greater Ulang (South Sudan). Retrieved on December 18, 2020, from

Doctors Without Borders. (2020, December 9). South Sudan: A glimpse of life inside the country’s largest camp for displaced people. Retrieved on December 11, 2020, from


 United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS):


Nonviolent Peaceforce:

International Rescue Committee (IRC):

Jesuit Refugee Service:

Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC):

World Vision International (WVI):

Catholic Relief Services (CRS):

 Keywords: South Sudan, UN peacekeeping, UNMISS, forced displacement, IDPs, refugees, violence

Next article Experiences of Structural Violence in the Stories of Undocumented Latinas in the U.S.
Previous article Why Do Individuals Support Political Violence?