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Guilt by Location:
Forced Displacement and Population Sorting in Civil Wars
(Cambridge University Press, Forthcoming in 2024)

Wars are killing fewer people today on average, but they are displacing more of them. A staggering 108 million individuals are currently uprooted by conflict and violence worldwide, the highest recorded since the Second World War. While forced migration has become a massive feature of modern conflict and a salient issue in international politics, there has been relatively little systematic research on the use of population displacement as a weapon of war. Guilt by Location provides the most comprehensive analysis to date of how, where, and why armed groups deliberately uproot civilians in civil wars. The book introduces new data on strategic displacement and identifies variation within and across conflicts in the use of three different types: the cleansing of political or ethnic groups, the depopulation of designated areas, and the forced relocation of civilians into new dwellings.


information about the affiliations and allegiances of the local population. Since information is often lacking, armed groups rely on simplifying heuristics, or clues, to infer opponents’ identities and civilians’ loyalties. Previous research has shown that cleansing is sometimes a consequence of this practice: if combatants use heuristics such as ethnic identity or political party affiliation to distinguish enemies from allies, they will collectively target members of these groups and seek their expulsion.

To explain forced relocation - and at least some instances of depopulation - I advance a new theory of displacement, which contends that combatants often displace to sort the civilian population, not to get rid of it. Civil wars entail a high degree of uncertainty. In order to identify and coerce their enemies, combatants need

But what if such heuristics are unavailable or unhelpful – because, for instance, opposing forces lacks a distinct ethnic identity? In these contexts, instead of engaging in ethnic or racial profiling, information-starved and resource-constrained combatants may resort to spatial profiling. Political identities often become territorialized in civil war. Combatants can therefore use human mobility to infer wartime sympathies through what I call “guilt by location.” Triggering displacement forces people to send costly and visible signals of loyalty and affiliation based on whether, and to where, they flee.  This also makes communities more accessible and “legible,” which enables armed groups to (1) use people’s movements and locations as a continuous indicator of allegiance; and (2) extract rents and recruits from the population, while signaling legitimacy to domestic and international audiences. I therefore show that displacement is often attractive because it offers unique solutions to information and resource problems in civil wars by acting as a sorting mechanism and a force multiplier.


To test this “assortative” theory, I use multiple research methods and sources, including an original cross-national dataset of wartime displacement strategies and in-depth case studies based on one year of survey, archival, and interview field research in Uganda, Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria. I find strong evidence that while cleansing aims to expel disloyal populations, forced relocation seeks to identify the disloyal in the first place. This has profound implications for our understanding of wartime displacement and can inform the study of conflict and violence more broadly. In light of the strain being placed on aid agencies by rising global displacement, growing hostility towards refugees in Western countries, and the realization that mass population movements can spread violence and threaten peace and development, addressing displacement is an urgent endeavor. Guilt by Location demonstrates that such efforts require understanding not only why people elect to flee conflict, but also why conflict parties force them to flee - offering important lessons for policymakers, practitioners, and advocates.

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