Violence, Displacement, and Support for Internally Displaced Persons: Evidence from Syria

Alexandra C. Hartman, Benjamin S. Morse, and Sigrid Weber

Journal of Conflict Resolution,


This paper investigates the relationship between violence, altruism, and intergroup behavior during conflict. In particular, the authors examine whether past experiences of violence shape an individual’s willingness to host IDPs in Syria. Specifically, they consider whether past experiences of violence affect: (a) whether and for how long an individual decides to host IDPs; and (b) how much weight an individual assigns to indicators of need relative to ethnic and religious identity when deciding who to host. The authors hypothesize that victimization and suffering can lead to greater empathy, which in turn can motivate altruistic behavior toward those in need regardless of their ethnic or religious identity.

The analysis draws on survey data collected in December 2017 from over 2,000 Syrians living in rebel-held regions where many IDPs sought refuge. The survey collected information on past experiences of violence, whether respondents were currently hosting IDPs from other parts of Syria, and whether they would be willing to host additional IDPs should the need arise. Respondents were presented with descriptions of hypothetical IDP families whose attributes varied along several dimensions (e.g. ethnic and religious identity, gender of household head, level of need, and occupation) and asked to choose which family they would rather host, given their limited resources. 44 percent of respondents were hosting an IDP at the time the survey was administered.

Main findings:

  • Syrians who previously experienced violence were more likely to host IDPs, relative to those who experienced less violence. A one standard deviation increase in violence is associated with a 5 percentage point increase in the likelihood of hosting IDPs and an additional 12 person-months of hosting overall.
  • Syrians previously exposed to violence were more likely to host sick and vulnerable IDPs and outgroup IDPs from the Kurdish ethnic minority, relative to those who experienced less violence. Whereas residents with below average exposure to violence and displacement discriminate against Kurdish families and families with sick children, residents with above average prior exposure to violence do not appear to discriminate and tend to prefer hosting families with sick children.
  • However, Sunni Muslims previously exposed to violence were less likely to host IDPs from the Christian minority, possibly due to their association with the Assad regime. Among Sunni Muslims, previous experiences of violence are associated with a lower willingness to host Christian IDPs, relative to those with less exposure. This is attributed to resentment of Assyrian Christians for their support for the Assad regime.

The authors conclude that altruism born of suffering can motivate decisions to host IDPs. However, altruism born of suffering is unlikely to extend to all outgroups, especially those associated with rival parties in the conflict. The findings suggest that sectarian politics come into play, i.e. whereas altruism toward apolitical outgroups may increase in the aftermath of violence, altruism toward outgroups associated with rival parties in the conflict may decrease due to blame attribution, the heightened importance of self-interested security concerns, or other mechanisms associated with parochial altruism.