Seeking safety: Avoiding displacement and choosing destinations in civil wars

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Despite civil war violence, some civilians stay in their communities. Those who leave choose one of many possible destinations. Drawing on fieldwork in Colombia, this article argues that the way armed groups target civilians explains households’ decisions about displacement. When groups of civilians are targeted based on a shared characteristic – ‘collective’ targeting – their best options for avoiding violence differ from those targeted selectively or indiscriminately. This article outlines conditions under which people can stay in contexts of collective targeting, and where they are likely to go if these conditions are not met. A civilian facing collective targeting could move to a rival group’s stronghold, cluster with others similarly targeted, or seek anonymity in a city or different region. Community characteristics, such as whether it is urban or rural, as well as macro characteristics of the war, such as whether or not there is an ascriptive cleavage, shape which decisions are relatively safest, which in turn leads to implications for aggregate patterns. For example, clustering together has a perverse effect: even though hiding among others with similar characteristics may reduce an individual’s likelihood of suffering direct violence, the community may be more endangered as it is perceived to be affiliated with an armed group. This then leads to a cycle of collective targeting and displacement, which has important implications for the development of warfare. In turn, this cycle and related cleavage formation may have long-term impacts on postwar stability and politics.

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  • Abbey Steele

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