What Makes People Flee Conflict?

The fifth largest city in Jordan is the Zaatari refugee camp, where approximately 175,000 Syrians fleeing their country’s war now live.  This is but a fraction of the 500,000 Syrians who have fled to Jordan, and an even smaller fraction of Syrians who have fled their own homes and now live in other countries or elsewhere within Syria.  Obviously, the displacement of civilians depends in part on presence or threat of violence.  But what else may explain whether citizens flee conflict?

In his doctoral research—supported in part by the National Science Foundation—Prakash Adhikari studied the factors that led civilians to flee in a different conflict, the Nepalese Civil War, that displaced approximately 50,000 people from their homes.  A survey of both displaced and non-displaced Nepalese revealed not only the role of violence, but the importance of economic infrastructure (and its destruction).  People who lived in villages with an industry present—in this case, one that employed 10 or more people—were less likely to flee.  People who lost crops, animals, or land were more likely to flee.

None of these findings is surprising on its face.  But Adhikari’s work suggests that the logic of displacement is more than just about violence or physical threat.  And—though Nepal and Syria are in no way strictly analogous (the juxtaposition here is mine, not his)—Adhikari’s work suggests how the United States and the rest of the international community might be able to prevent large-scale forced migration: not only by working to reduce the threat of violence, but by supporting the economic and social infrastructure of affected communities.  Foreign governments and NGOs already do this, of course, but Adhikari’s work shows that such efforts can be consequential.

Moreover, given how displacement only adds to the human toll and political destabilization caused by civil war, and given that the United States frequently assists in ending civil wars or at least mitigating their effects, I think this research also happens to meet Senator Coburn’s stated criterion that federally funded research serve the national security of the United States.

The article is here.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.