Civilian Resettlement Patterns in Civil War

Abbey Steele

Journal of Peace Research, Volume 56, Issue 1 (2019)


The predominant approach to forced displacement draws on the ‘push-pull’ model from migration studies, which reasons that the displaced, like migrants, compare the conditions in their home community (security, economic conditions) with those elsewhere when deciding whether and where to go. This assumes that individuals/households decide independently. The author argues that resettlement decisions also depend on decisions of others who are also displaced, i.e. the displaced anticipate whether their safety depends in part on others who are also displaced, or not. The author introduces a conceptual typology of civilian resettlement patterns in civil wars that incorporates two dimensions: (a) whether or not displaced civilians cluster together or resettle independently; and (b) whether civilians remain within their home country or relocate abroad. The interaction of how and where the displaced resettle creates four ideal-type patterns: (i) expulsion; (ii) segregation; (iii) integration; and (iv) dispersion. Expulsion and segregation occur when the displaced cluster, either abroad (expulsion) or within the home state (segregation). Integration and dispersion occur when the displaced do not cluster but seek to blend in with other communities, either locally (integration) or abroad (dispersion). The author argues that the form of displacement civilians experience (cleansing or not) shapes whether or not they will try to resettle with others, and the actor that perpetrates the violence (state or not) explains if they will resettle within their home state or abroad.

  • Groups that experience political cleansing are likely to cluster together for safety. There are three types of displacement: (1) individual escape, when people react to selective targeting by an armed group; (2) mass evasion, when civilians avoid indiscriminate violence; and (3) political cleansing, when armed groups expel civilians through collective targeting, based on a shared trait. The author argues that those who experience cleansing (i.e. targeted based on a shared trait that is difficult to shed) are the most likely to cluster together in their new location, because they face an ongoing security risk; if they resettle independently, they will stand out and face potential harm again. In contrast, those who experience selective targeting can try to seek anonymity in cities or new communities, and civilians who face indiscriminate violence can reduce the threat they face by relocating, whether or not they resettle with others.
  • The best destination options for the displaced to resettle depend on the perpetrator, which lead to clustering either within a state if the actor is non-state, or outside the state if the actor is the state or an ally.

The article concludes by considering the implications of resettlement patterns for violence, conflict, and state building.