Why Do People Flee During War? The Answer Is More Complicated Than You Think.
Around the world, security forces use forced displacement as a means of sorting populations. To fix the global displacement crisis, it’s critical to understand how and why they do it.
The coronavirus pandemic has cast a light on the global displacement crisis and given governments an excuse to perpetuate it. Around the globe, 50 million people are internally displaced—the highest number in history—having been uprooted within their countries by conflict, violence, and disasters.
They join more than 30 million refugees and asylum-seekers who have crossed an international border to seek sanctuary in other countries. Displaced populations are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Yet government responses to the pandemic have worsened conditions in displacement camps and reception centers, encouraged the scapegoating of refugees and migrants, and limited access to asylum.
The potential for the coronavirus to exacerbate the suffering of the displaced, even as the United States and other countries increasingly restrict asylum, has renewed calls to focus on addressing the root causes of displacement.
People flee their homes for a variety of reasons—political, economic, social, and environmental. But armed conflict is a primary culprit. Wartime displacement is not just an unintended consequence of violence but also a deliberate strategy pursued by combatants. In a variety of countries that have been convulsed by civil wars and insurgencies in recent years—including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Syria—armed groups have routinely and intentionally displaced civilians. It is thus critical to understand the strategic logic behind these actions. If any displacement crises are preventable, it is those that are intentionally created by political and military actors.
When armed forces uproot people, the act tends to be characterized by journalists, politicians, and policymakers as ethnic cleansing. This suggests that the primary purpose is to expel or eliminate the targeted population. Strategic displacement takes different forms and can serve multiple purposes, from interdicting enemy supply lines to facilitating territorial annexation. What my research suggests, however, is that combatants, particularly state forces, often displace civilians to sort the targeted population—not to get rid of it.
Civil wars entail a high degree of uncertainty. When armed groups lack information about opponents’ identities and civilians’ loyalties, they can use human mobility to infer them through what I term “guilt by location.” Triggering displacement forces people to send costly and visible signals of loyalty and affiliation based on whether, when, and to where they flee. Those who comply with orders to move are vetted and often serve as sources of rents and recruits for perpetrators. Those who defect by staying behind in contested territory or moving to areas controlled by the opposing side are often written off—fairly or not—as enemies. Displacement is therefore used not only to remove the undesirables or the disloyal. It is used to help identify them in the first place.
In northeast Nigeria, for example, the government has responded to the Boko Haram insurgency by ordering local residents to evacuate their villages and move to so-called garrison towns overseen by the military. According to Reuters, “the demarcation between garrison towns and a lawless countryside means people have a choice: live in virtual quarantine, or return to their homes in the countryside, where Boko Haram roam, and be treated by security forces as potential insurgency sympathizers.”
This strategy mimics the use of strategic hamlets, regroupment centers, and so-called protected villages during civil wars in Burundi, Indonesia, the Philippines, Peru, Rwanda, Uganda, and Vietnam, where government forces ordered people living in conflict areas to relocate to particular locations. In addition to denying rebels access to the population, these methods were used to help counterinsurgents distinguish friend from foe while fighting shadowy guerrillas who hid among civilians. Areas outside relocation sites were transformed into free-fire zones where those remaining were assumed to be rebel fighters or supporters. The sites themselves served as instruments of identification. Occupants were screened and catalogued—making the population more “legible” to the state—and their movements were used as continuous indicators of their political loyalties.
Consider Uganda. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the government relocated people into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps during military campaigns against the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Allied Democratic Forces. As one army commander told me, “It was impossible to differentiate between rebels and civilians.” Relocating the population into camps was “very important, they helped us know who the enemy was.” Another Ugandan soldier I interviewed explained how the military used displacement as a crude method of sorting the population: “The good people were in the camps” and so “anyone found out of the camp was seen as a rebel or collaborator automatically.” This meant that, as one report from a nongovernmental organization put it, the “distinction between combatants and civilians no longer depends on whether or not you are actively engaged in armed conflict, but on your geographical location.”
A similar dynamic can be seen in Syria. Throughout the conflict, the government of Bashar al-Assad and its allies have engaged in a ferocious campaign to expel civilians from cities and towns controlled by Syrian rebels. These displacement tactics have undermined rebels’ ability to govern and deprived them of civilian support. But they have also been used to weed out those considered disloyal to the Assad regime. The government has sought to lure the displaced to its territories and employed civil registration, property claims, and other administrative procedures to screen returning refugees and IDPs. As part of evacuation and reconciliation agreements in areas retaken from opposition groups, the Assad regime has given residents a choice of moving to government areas or to other rebel-held parts of Syria. Electing the latter is seen as signaling allegiance to the opposition. Many of those who moved are now being relentlessly targeted by regime forces in Idlib province, the only remaining opposition stronghold. When I spoke to a defector from the Syrian army, he conveyed the logic through a chilling metaphor: “Think of a dumpster where you gather garbage to finally burn it.”
Indeed, while some observers have characterized forced displacement in Syria as “demographic engineering,” civilians have often been treated differently based on their movements and physical locations, not just their ethnic or religious identities. Using displacement to help pull people back to the state has aided the government politically and militarily. IDPs have served as conscripts—helping bolster the manpower of the depleted Syrian army—and as propaganda fodder, with authorities hailing their return to government territory as evidence of the regime’s legitimacy.
Viewing displacement as a sorting mechanism is essential to understanding the drivers and consequences of wartime migrations, and for improving efforts to manage them. The United Nations and international NGOs typically set up and manage displacement camps; provide food, shelter, health care, education, and other services; advocate on behalf of the displaced; and help governments adopt domestic policies on displacement-related issues.
While this assistance has done much good, it has also raised the specter of moral hazard. It is one thing for the international community to assist those who flee to another country in order to ease the strain on refugee-hosting governments. It is quite another for it to shoulder the burden of displacement within a country on behalf of a government or nonstate actor that is directly responsible for the displacement in the first place. In Syria, for instance, the Assad regime has steered massive amounts of humanitarian assistance to areas it controls, which has helped the government lure IDPs and address some of their needs.
If humanitarian agencies show they are willing to offset the costs of uprooting civilians, they could perversely incentivize armed groups to engage in these practices. This is not hypothetical. There are multiple instances where international aid, while providing crucial life-saving assistance to people in conflict zones, has also enabled combatants to implement, sustain, or expand policies of forced displacement. In addition to covering the costs and containing the consequences of displacement, meanwhile, aid organizations can unwittingly help perpetrators track and sort civilians by encamping, registering, and cataloging them as part of relief distribution.
Humanitarian groups must be willing to make tough choices if they hope to avoid this moral hazard. In situations of internal displacement, if there is evidence that displacement has been orchestrated by armed groups, donors and NGOs should threaten to withdraw aid unless combatants are meeting their obligations under international law. (Displacement can be lawful where “the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand,” but perpetrators must take measures to provide satisfactory shelter, hygiene, health, safety, and nutrition.) Such a choice can be an excruciating one, particularly for organizations dedicated to saving lives. But in order to adhere to the principle of “do no harm,” aid agencies must ensure they are conducting their operations without inadvertently encouraging the very outcomes they are seeking to prevent.
Governments and international organizations must also give greater attention to the politics of displacement when devising initiatives to secure peace after conflicts end. The widespread use of sorting displaced people demonstrates that fleeing in wartime can be perceived as a political act. But the presumption of guilt by location is often embraced by combatants and civilians alike, and not just in cases where displacement is used as a weapon of war. As Stephanie Schwartz argued in a previous article in Foreign Policy, post-conflict societies commonly experience hostility between people who fled during a conflict and those who stayed.
That means repatriation and resettlement of displaced people is central to broader peace-building processes. Conflict resolution and reconciliation efforts need to treat displacement and return as a political phenomenon, not just a humanitarian one. To be effective, these initiatives must address displacement-related cleavages when seeking to strengthen social relations and foster meaningful reconciliation. And if combatants purposely compelled people to flee during the conflict, then victims will need greater security assurances to return, along with accountability mechanisms that recognize these violations and provide restitution and justice. Rarely are state or nonstate actors held responsible for displacement. This will require fostering the political will to either prosecute perpetrators using existing enforcement mechanisms or, potentially, establishing displacement as a separate international crime.
A more nuanced understanding of the strategic logic behind forced displacement reaffirms the importance of an international refugee system that is increasingly seen as feckless and disconnected from the realities of modern migration. That’s because in civil wars, civilians are valuable assets for armed groups. If people are given the ability to escape conflict-affected countries, then they are not compelled to “pick a side” through their movements. Armed groups are deprived of vulnerable recruits and propaganda pawns. Leaving the country may still be perceived as treachery, but at least crossing the border puts civilians beyond the reach of all warring parties and makes them eligible for international protection. Limiting the possibility of exit only stands to embolden combatants while forcing people to decide between bad options.
There is also strategic value in enacting more generous asylum policies as a tool of conflict management. Even before the current global health crisis, the prospects for expanding asylum looked bleak, with more and more countries closing their borders and attempting to skirt their responsibilities to those fleeing violence and persecution. But throughout history, hostility toward immigrants and surges of nationalist sentiment have been accompanied by political leaders recognizing the advantages of welcoming refugees from other countries. A prominent example is the Cold War. For the United States, accepting emigres from the Soviet Union and allied countries was a foreign-policy priority meant to signal the discontents of communist rule and the relative merits of American values and institutions. Today, the refugee system is in desperate need of reform, which could gain some momentum if more emphasis is placed on articulating and promoting the strategic benefits of asylum and refugee resettlement.