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Guilt by Location:

Forced Displacement and Population Sorting in Civil Wars

Wars are killing fewer people today on average, but they are displacing more of them. A staggering 70 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. Previous research has tended to treat civilian displacement as a byproduct of violence or focus on the most extreme cases of ethnic cleansing. Guilt by Location provides the most comprehensive analysis to date of how, where, and why armed groups deliberately uproot civilians in civil wars.


Civil wars entail a high degree of uncertainty. In order to identify and coerce their enemies, combatants need 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.

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. To explain this, I advance a new theory of displacement, which contends that combatants often displace to sort the civilian population, not to get rid of it.

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.

Book Outline

Introduction: Weaponizing Displacement in Civil Wars

The introductory chapter describes several puzzles that motivate the book, briefly presents its main arguments, defines key terms and the scope conditions of the study, and outlines existing theories of wartime displacement and their weaknesses. It also describes the research design and discusses the importance of the study. 

Chapter 1: Conceptualizing and Describing Strategic Wartime Displacement 

This chapter provides the conceptual groundwork of the book, distinguishing between different types of strategic displacement and providing descriptive trends of their use in contemporary wars. In the first section, I present a conceptual typology that differentiates between three primary displacement strategies: cleansing, depopulation, and forced relocation. The second section presents an original cross-national dataset that measures the incidence of these strategies by government and rebel combatants in 166 civil wars (1945-2017)

Chapter 2: An Assortative Theory of Displacement

Chapter 2 lays out an "assortative" theory of displacement and derives hypotheses regarding the conditions under which combatants are likely to adopt different displacement strategies. To demonstrate the logic and plausibility of each aspect of my argument and illustrate its central causal claims, I provide empirical examples from a wide range of civil wars, including Angola (1975-2002), Burma (1960-95), Bangladesh (1974-97), El Salvador (1979-92), Ethiopia (1974-91), Guatemala (1978-94), India (1989-), Peru (1980-96), the Philippines (1972-), Rwanda (1996-2002), and Sri Lanka (2003-09). 

Chapter 3: Strategic Displacement in Civil Wars, 1945-2017

Chapter 3 examines cross-national evidence for different explanations for state-induced displacement using the dataset of population displacement strategies in 166 civil wars introduced in Chapter 1. I conduct statistical tests of four primary arguments: ethnic nationalism, rebel threat/desperation, punishment, and my assortative logic. The quantitative evidence answers important questions about how frequent strategic displacement is in civil wars, what actors employ it, and what forms are more and less common. Moreover, it identifies patterns in displacement by state actors - who I find to be the predominant perpetrators - and provides an indirect test of my arguments by revealing where strategic displacement in general, and forced relocation in particular, tends to occur - and by identifying the factors associated with the use of these strategies across conflicts.

Chapter 4: Forced Relocation in Uganda

Chapter 4 tests my arguments in a case study of forced relocation in Uganda (1986-2006), which offers a unique opportunity to examine strategic displacement due to a high degree of internal variation and an unusual openness about this subject among government officials, military veterans, and citizens. This chapter is based on six months of field research, during which I collected data from government archives, human rights and humanitarian organizations, surveys, and hundreds of interviews with political officials, military officers, rank-and-file soldiers, civil society groups, journalists, community leaders, ex-rebel combatants, and civilians. 

Chapter 5: Comparative Evidence of the Assortative Logic: Burundi, Vietnam, and Indonesia 

Chapters 5 and 6 analyze additional case studies to further explore the external validity of my theory. While the results of cross-national tests lend indirect support for my arguments, the case studies offer direct evidence for my theoretical mechanism and compensate for several important weaknesses in the quantitative analysis. Chapter 5 examines three civil wars from my dataset that experienced forced relocation – Burundi (1991-2005), Vietnam (1960-75), and Indonesia (1999-2005) – to gauge whether the core mechanisms of my theory can account for the empirical associations found in Chapter 4. Burundi and Indonesia are two least likely cases for my theory, while Vietnam is an influential case of strategic displacement. 

Chapter 6: Cleansing and Depopulation in Syria

This chapter extends my analysis to a difficult out-of-sample case by examining the civil war in Syria (2011-present). This case study exhibits within-case variation in the use of two different types of displacement by pro-government forces: cleansing and depopulation. It therefore offers an opportunity to assess whether my arguments apply to depopulation, and to examine the use of multiple displacement strategies by the same actor in the same conflict. This chapter analyzes quantitative and qualitative data from a range of sources, including media reports, human rights records, data on violence and displacement collected by NGOs, and interviews with activists, journalists, combatants, and regime defectors that I conducted in Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon.

Chapter 7: The Politics of Wartime Displacement

I conclude the book by discussing its implications for the study of forced migration and displacement, conflict, and political violence, and for policy efforts to manage and respond to forced population movements.

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