E.g., 11/30/2023
E.g., 11/30/2023
Violent Encounters and Social Status Shape the Conditions for Migrants Fleeing Civil War

Violent Encounters and Social Status Shape the Conditions for Migrants Fleeing Civil War

A child walks by a destroyed building in Syria.

A child walks by a destroyed building in Syria. (Photo: © UNICEF/Grove Hermansen)

At what point do people leave their homes during civil war? Even before considering the eventual journeys that migrants make as either internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees and asylum seekers, particular conditions often must exist for them to leave the place where they had been living. While it might seem obvious that violence is the primary and critical driver of migration during civil war, the reality is that fluctuations in violence do not necessarily align with variations in migration levels. Research in Nepal, for instance, found a nonlinear relationship between violence and movement, such that low and moderate levels of violence actually reduced the odds that people would migrate. Surprisingly, a given violent event does not necessarily cause civilians to relocate or leave the country.

Part of this misalignment in timing comes from the fact that the decision to migrate turns in part on whether individuals have personally experienced violence or are aware that it is occurring, either in the abstract or in regard to people in their social networks who are targeted. Counterintuitively, the experience of violence can delay one’s motivation to migrate. As a result, the people who develop intentions to migrate first may be less likely to have experienced violence personally compared to those who depart later.

For example, one Syrian man from Aleppo told the author that he did not decide to migrate the first time he was arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime. Only after his second arrest did he make the decision to flee:

The reason [for my migration] was I was arrested two times by the Syrian regime because my little son’s name was the same name of a leader of a group in [the opposition Free Syrian Army] FSA. Although my son was only 10 years old, they arrested me and tortured me and asked me many questions about the FSA. So I decided to travel or to go to FSA areas.

Another man from Damascus similarly recounted how he was detained twice by pro-government Shabiha militia members. It was the second experience, which occurred a year after the first, that triggered his decision to leave the city. He described how he and a friend were kidnapped but then released due to personal connections:

They took us at a roadblock... They said they were with the government, but it was clear that they were not government soldiers. We were held one night and released the next morning. The soldiers were Shabiha. They asked for ransom. We were released because my friend’s relatives knew about it and contacted people who were high up in the government. They knew the kidnappers and forced them to release us without a ransom.

Beyond motivation to migrate, people also need opportunity to do so. A major shortcoming of the push-and-pull models that have long shaped how researchers explain and try to predict migration is their overlooking the importance of opportunity to leave. Particularly during civil war, this opportunity can be provided by one’s social status, which is a critical resource that can achieve more than money alone.

This article, based on research conducted for the author’s book, Surviving the War in Syria: Survival Strategies in a Time of Conflict, evaluates the role that both motivation and opportunity play in internal and international migration amid violent conflict. Personal experiences with violence and an individual’s social status are crucial factors in determining their migration during conflict. Experiencing violence can promote adaptability that leads people to consider alternatives to migration, while social status can create opportunity to leave. This level of analysis underscores civilians’ agency in the midst of conflict and considers migration as one of many possible responses to violence. It also has practical benefits and could affect how organizations and scholars anticipate which types of individuals flee civil war at which times.     

Box 1. Interview Methods

This article is based on interviews conducted in Turkey in 2016 with 179 Syrian refugees who left the country between 2011 and 2016. Most interviews were conducted in Istanbul and were spread out in multiple locations across the city; interviews with 34 refugees were conducted in the city of Izmir. Subjects came from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Their names have not been included to preserve their anonymity.

Violent Experiences Affect Motivation to Migrate

The claim that violent experiences could delay motivation to migrate might seem counterintuitive. Most research on the causes of migration contends that people become motivated to migrate if they perceive a level of violent threat above some acceptable threshold. But this assumes that people’s primary response to threat perceptions is to migrate.

Instead, threat perceptions could prompt a wide variety of responses. People may fight, protest, hide, support their community members, or select one of the many other possible civilian self-protection strategies. To choose migration specifically, individuals must perceive that there are no other sufficiently safe alternatives.

This is where undergoing violent experiences plays an important role. Aid workers, activists, academics, and policymakers increasingly highlight trauma as a harmful long-term consequence of experiencing violence. Responses to trauma come in two main forms: post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic stress manifests as four types of symptoms: intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Post-traumatic growth manifests positive responses in five areas: appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual change. There is not yet a scholarly consensus on how or why some people who have trauma emerge with damage while others have positive responses, but a popular tentative argument is that social support can help steer traumatized people into growth.

Surprisingly, psychologists have found that violent experiences trigger personal growth just as often as they trigger stress. Political scientists have traced how personal growth after violent experiences increased war survivors’ engagement in peacetime political life, but there may be other implications. These outcomes might be due to what these traumatic processes mean for adaptability and the likelihood of making efforts to benefit others, known as pro-sociality. While post-traumatic stress has antisocial effects and can decrease adaptability to challenging and confusing circumstances, post-traumatic growth has pro-social effects and can increase adaptability to these circumstances.

When violent experiences trigger growth rather than stress, the resultant increases in pro-sociality and adaptability can help people identify alternatives to migration that they deem to be sufficiently safe. Individuals seek these alternatives because migration can be very expensive, not just financially but also in terms of emotional and social costs. Migration can also be dangerous as civilians attempt to move through and away from war zones. Instead of relocating, some might pay bribes to armed figures, modify their daily patterns of movement, or take other actions to secure their safety. Refugees from rural areas of Syria who spoke with the author explained how they sometimes hid in the desert when armed groups passed through their neighborhood and then returned after the fighters were gone. Others moved between neighborhoods to account for times of the day when battles took place.

This means that violent experiences that trigger growth may delay motivation to migrate. One Syrian refugee interviewed in Istanbul explained how violent experiences led him to help others without fear of repercussions:

When people have many violent experiences, they stop caring whether they will die. They just talk to whoever they want… People in general just assume that they face danger no matter what they do… Why not help the people you care about?

Opportunity to Migrate Can Be Shaped by Social Status

In addition to having motivation to migrate, people must also see an opportunity to do so. Moving can be made more difficult by a range of obstacles, including the possibility of violence along migration routes, which can be common in civil wars. This threat can be a deterrent for many would-be migrants. Most migration out of conflict zones occurs via land, but even when people travel via air or sea, they typically need to cross some distance on land to reach their departure points for other modes of travel, be it an airport, dock, or other location. Rough terrain such as mountains, barren deserts, or dense jungles may provide protection from combatants, but civilians generally need to follow existing roads for navigation. Armed groups know this, so they are able to establish checkpoints on those roads. Checkpoints as well as border posts, ambush sites, and other points of encounter with armed officials can be dangerous spaces for civilians. As a result, individuals need to believe that they will be protected from violence along their route in particular in order to overcome the deterrent threat to remain in place.

Unlike less discriminate forms of violence, such as bombings or poorly trained shooters during fighting in residential areas, at these moments on the road civilians are able to impact how combatants act towards them. Safe passage therefore requires a plan that may involve convincing soldiers that it is in their best interest to allow a person or group to pass. Social status is a powerful tool for this persuasion. The political scientist Marielle Debos has eloquently recounted how, during unrest in Chad in 2005, a driver leveraged his connection to a “well-seated man” to pass through a checkpoint run by mercenaries known as bogobogos:

He’s one of the bogobogos that we were just talking about?

Yes. He is asking the driver to get everyone out to check our IDs. The women with us have koros of sugar and pagnes from Kousséri [merchandise imported from Cameroon]. But we’re going to leave. The driver refused.

The driver refused? But how is that possible?

The driver… knows well-seated people [well-off, benefiting from good connections]. If the customs officer does not let us pass by peacefully, he’s going to talk to his relatives and it won’t go well.

And if the bogobogo had well-seated relatives, too?

In that case, they would have negotiated.

So we have less to worry about in taxis driven by well-seated people.

People know that with certain drivers, they’re cool.

Syrian Wasta for Safe Passage

In Syria, the system that provides some people with advantaged social status is referred to as wasta. While wasta may derive from money for some people or from connections for others, the consistent critical implication is that wasta facilitates safe passage. The breadth of this concept frustrates those who seek clear delineations between the consequences of financial capital and social capital, but in this case that distinction would not make sense.

Syrians who had wasta directly could pass through checkpoints safely on their own. One young man whose family was from a small town outside Damascus explained how his father used his status as an engineer to secure safe passage for the family to drive to Lebanon:

We heard rumors that if your father is an engineer or doctor, then they can use their cards to pass the checkpoints. My father is an engineer, so he did this. At the first checkpoint, my father tried it even though we did not believe it would work... In fact, it did work.

Other Syrians accessed wasta indirectly, through connections. In some cases, people pay members of the government to drive them through checkpoints. Another man from Damascus provided an example:

The driver was a member of the government, so he didn’t need to stop at checkpoints. It was getting expensive to go through the checkpoints. The car was expensive as a result. I needed wasta to use it. I sold all of my possessions to pay for the car… If anybody was wanted by the Syrian regime, he tried to hire this car.

Benefits of Understanding How Violent Experiences and Social Status Shape Migration

The combination of a lack of personal experiences with violence and possession of wasta can lead to earlier migration out of conflict zones since these civilians might be less likely to explore alternative survival strategies and have greater opportunity to leave. Understanding this connection can help analysts better anticipate movements of IDPs, refugees, and asylum seekers.

For instance, over the short term, it could improve expectations for humanitarian needs. Humanitarian agencies often specialize in crisis response rather than long-term management of vulnerable populations, so they would benefit from being able to better predict the pace at which displaced people’s needs may grow—and the ways in which they may increase—as time passes. If people with advantaged social status migrate first, then those who migrate later might have greater economic needs. Mental-health needs may also change if migrants who depart later are more likely to have undergone traumatic violent experiences and have grown from them. As such, humanitarian groups might expect that different types of individuals will migrate at different times, which could impact preparations for their receptions in IDP camps and refugee settings. Being able to anticipate these characteristics ahead of time could enable these organizations to be more attentive to the special needs and possible pro-social behaviors of late-arriving migrants.

For long-term impact, attention to the role of violent experiences and social status could improve forecasting models. Current modelling efforts draw on traditional push-pull frameworks as a foundation for selecting variables to consider. In these models, analysts consider “push” factors that influence motivation to leave one location and “pull” factors that influence motivation to move towards another. Opportunity, meanwhile, is rarely considered, even though it is an important element. Social status is a critical part of obtaining opportunity for the initial travel. The political scientists Margaret Peters and Alisha Holland have shown that welcoming policy changes in destination countries are critical for shaping opportunities to immigrate. Without considering these kinds of factors, forecasting efforts are likely to have significant shortcomings.

Most broadly, improving researchers’ specific understanding of the conditions of migration also improves their general comprehension of civilian behavior in conflict zones. Civilians living through civil war are too often collapsed into binary labels of victim or villain, with outside observers neglecting their agency and the difficult decisions they make in response to and in shaping their experiences. Instead, civilian life in conflict zones is inherently complex, and analysts could consider the vast repertoires of action—violent and nonviolent—that are available to civilians. Doing so could allow for humanitarian groups, foreign governments, and others to respond more effectively to what ordinary people truly need and want.


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