Motivation and Opportunity for Conflict-Induced Migration: An Analysis of Syrian Migration Timing

Justin Schon

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


The author examines the timing of conflict-induced migration and why some individuals leave their homes earlier than others. The author reviews the existing research that emphasizes the role of violence in driving civilian migration decisions (either directly by increasing threat perceptions or indirectly by damaging the economy, but notes that migration timing often does not have a clear correlation with violence timing. Using structured interviews with Syrian refugees in Turkey, the author shows that witnessing violence and social status (social connections and wealth) affect the timing of an individual’s decision to flee.

  • Civilians who witness violence will migrate later than those who do not witness violence. While some experiences of violence produce negative psychological responses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other experiences of violence may produce more positive effects due to post-traumatic growth (PTG) resulting in increased creativity in finding coping mechanisms. Literature suggests that witnessing violence (as opposed to ‘violence received’ or ‘violence to family members’) is the only experience of violence that is correlated with PTG without a clear correlation with PTSD. People who witness violence tend to undergo PTG, believe existing narratives for longer, suffer narrative ruptures later, and develop motivation to migrate later than those who do not witness violence.
  • Civilians who perceive that they have ‘wasta’—providing the opportunity to migrate safely—will migrate earlier. People who have an advantaged social status (‘wasta’), resulting from some combination of wealth and social connections, are better protected from selective violence along migration routes (e.g. allowing them to pass through checkpoints without incident) and therefore are more likely to leave earlier rather than later. This protection does not help in the face of indiscriminate violence in residential areas.

The author examines the determinants of migration timing using Cox proportional hazard models. He demonstrates that:

  • Civilians must have both early motivation and opportunity in order to migrate at an earlier time during conflict. Motivation without opportunity and opportunity without motivation are not enough.
  • Ties to armed groups is not a statistically significant determinant of the timing of migration, which supports the view that more information about armed group activities does not have a systematic relationship with motivation or opportunity for migration.
  • ‘Violence to family’ and ‘Violence received’ are not statistically significant determinants of the timing of migration, which supports an argument that the counter-intuitive effect of ‘Violence witnessed’ is not just driven by an endogenous relationship with migration timing. If witnessing violence were just more likely because somebody had stayed home for a longer duration and would have more violent experiences generally, then receiving violence or family members receiving violence should also be more likely as people stay home for a longer duration.