Should I stay or should I go? The decision to flee or stay home during civil war

Alex Braithwaite, Joseph M. Cox and Faten Ghosn

International Interactions, Volume 47, Issue 2 (2021), Pages 221-236


This paper examines whether different forms of violence affected decisions to flee within the country or abroad during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), differentiating between: (a) indirect violence (such as shelling or shooting), which is less likely to target specific individuals but occurs due to proximity to a battlefield; and (b) direct violence (including physical assaults, torture, sexual violence, abductions, forced labor, and wage theft), which specifically targets individuals. Following Schewel (2019), the authors frame the analysis in terms of an individual’s motivation to migrate (aspiration) that may be impeded by their capacity to migrate (capability).

The analysis is based on a survey of 2,400 Lebanese residents who lived through the civil war. The sample only includes refugees who eventually returned to Lebanon and does not include refugees who remained overseas in 2017, when the survey data was collected.

Main findings:

  • Individuals exposed to violence were more likely to become internally displaced compared to individuals who were not exposed to violence; however, this effect was not homogenous across types of violence or survey respondents.
  • Indirect violence, such as shelling, increased the likelihood that survey respondents became internally displaced in Lebanon rather than remaining at home throughout the war or leaving the country.
  • Direct forms of violence, such as torture and sexual violence, motivated individuals to flee Lebanon.

The author concludes that different forms of violence—direct or indirect—influence decisions taken by individuals to remain in conflict-affected areas, move to secure areas within the country, or to flee abroad.