Look who perpetrates violence and where: Explaining variation in forced migration

Oguzhan Turkoglu

Political Geography, Volume 94 (2022)



This paper examines the different determinants of internal and external displacement. The author argues that people flee their homes when the expected utility of leaving exceeds the expected utility of staying, and that in general external displacement is costlier than internal displacement, due to additional risks to personal safety and increased financial hardships associated with crossing a border and adapting to life in a new country. However, when violence is perpetrated by government or there is widespread insurgent violence across the country, the risks of staying and the benefits of fleeing the country are high, and people are more likely to flee across borders.

The analysis is based on refugee and IDPs flows between 1989 and 2017 from UNHCR and data on conflict from the Armed Conflict Dataset from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program/Peace Research Institute in Oslo (UCDP/PRIO). The author also controls for political, economic and geographic factors, drawing on data from the World Bank (level of economic development), Polity IV dataset (regime type) and Transborder Ethnic Kin Dataset (ethnic relations between origin and destination country).

The author finds that the pattern of displacement depends on: (1) the perpetrator; and (2) the geographical spread of the violence. Specific findings are as follows:

  • Government violence increases the number of refugees but does not have a significant impact on internal displacement. The author argues that to escape government violence, people must flee to another country because the government is generally effective everywhere within its borders.
  • Insurgent violence has a significant effect on internal displacement, with internal displacement rising to a peak as violence spreads and then decreasing as violence becomes widespread across the country. The author argues that if rebel violence is limited to a small area, people can escape it by leaving the conflict zone, but when violence is widespread, people may not have many opportunities to flee within the country and may have to cross an international border to escape violence.
  • Insurgent violence can also affect refugee flows. Some people who can afford to migrate abroad (for example, individuals who have networks in the destination country, can speak a foreign language or have financial means) might opt to flee abroad rather than within the country, even when violence is not widespread.

The author concludes that even though violent conflict affects both internal and external displacement, the pattern of displacement depends on the perpetrator and its spread. While government violence increases the number of refugees, rebel violence results in more internal displacement.