What affects individuals’ decision to flee during conflict?

By Prakash Adhikari

NEPAL - November 2008:  Mothers in Gothiwang village of Pyuthan district brainstorming coping mechanisms during the Maoist insurgency. (Photo by Prakash Adhikari)

NEPAL – November 2008: Mothers in Gothiwang village of Pyuthan district brainstorming coping mechanisms during the Maoist insurgency. (Photo by Prakash Adhikari)

In its mid-year report for 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had estimated that 51.2 million people had been “forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations.” The UN Refugee Agency further noted that if these individuals were to comprise one nation, it would be the 26th largest in the world. Not since World War II have there been so many displaced by conflict. The forthcoming mid-year report for 2015, which would include new displacement figures from Syria and Ukraine and may be published anytime soon, is certainly going to alarm the world. There is no doubt that violence is a major factor displacing civilians from their homes. But for all the people that flee their homes during conflict, many more stay behind risking their lives. What else may explain why some individuals flee conflict while others stay behind?

In my research on conflict-induced displacement, partly supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), I studied factors associated with individuals’ decisions to leave home during the 1996-2006 Maoist insurgency in Nepal. Using primary data collected at the individual-level, I show that conflict by itself is not the sole factor affecting individuals’ decisions to leave. A survey of over 1800 individuals across Nepal, supplemented with qualitative interviews, resulted in in-depth quantitative and qualitative analyses of the problem of forced migration. Delving into the micro-level of analysis, I identified a number of factors affecting villagers’ decisions to flee. My research finds that the presence of community organizations within societies provides a mechanism for individuals to cope with conflict and stay put. These community-level organizations, which are embedded within the structure of a society, are often overshadowed by other issues during peace-time. Additionally, I found that these preexisting social institutions, which are an integral part of village life, become active during conflict and play a remarkable role in dampening the perceived threat of violence, enabling citizens to stay. The findings suggest that one of the ways that governments and non-government organizations can protect civilians during conflict is to help with the creation and growth of local-level community organizations.

I also find that people living in villages where there are economic opportunities are less likely to flee. Individuals choose to take a risk and stay so long as economic opportunities are available and/or their personal property, such as land, crops and animals, is not taken away by the warring parties.  People are more likely to flee when economic survival in their village becomes precarious. Arguably, ensuring that economic opportunities are not depleted in villages and that people are able to continue to support themselves and their families is likely far less costly for governments than the cost of dealing with forced migrants.

With over 52 million people currently displaced around the world, forced migration is clearly a serious problem. Overall, my research suggests that governments, humanitarian organizations and other non-government organizations may be able to play a role in preventing this massive displacement of people from conflict ridden areas around the world by focusing attention and resources on community building and economic development. Such efforts may help to reduce the frequency of costly civil conflicts as well. Given that the United States is deeply involved in preventing conflicts around the world, this research draws useful implication for mitigating human catastrophe such as the one in Syria and establishing peace around the world.

About the author: Prakash Adhikari is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Central Michigan University. His article, “Conflict-Induced Displacement: Understanding the Causes of Flight” appeared in the January 2013 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


  1. […] Here, rather than asking why so many people flee their homes during conflict, we should ask why everyone does not flee. In my recently published article in Civil Wars, I argue that the violence and uncertainty at […]

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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