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date: 22 September 2021

Civil Wars and Displacementfree

Civil Wars and Displacementfree

  • Ayşe Betül ÇelikAyşe Betül ÇelikSanat ve Sosyal Bilimler Fakültesini, Sabanci Üniversitesi


The growing number of civil wars in the post-Cold War era has been accompanied by a rising number of forcibly displaced people, who either stay within the borders of their own countries, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs), or cross borders to become refugees. Although many studies have been conducted on the reasons of conflict-induced displacement, various questions remain of interest for the scholars of international relations, especially questions pertaining but not limited to the (a) gendered aspects of conflict, displacement, and peace processes, (b) predicting possible future displacement zones, and (c) best political and social designs for returnee communities in post-civil war contexts.

Most studies still focus on the negative consequences of forced migration, undermining how refugees and IDPs can also contribute to the cultural and political environment of the receiving societies. Considering that there is a huge variation in types of conflict, motivations for violence, and the resulting patterns of displacement within the category of civil war, more research on the actors forcing displacement, their intentions, and subsequent effects on return dynamics can benefit research in this field. Similarly, research on return and reconciliation needs to treat displacement and return as a continuum. Paying attention to conflict parties in civil war bears the potential for new areas of exploration whose outcomes can also shed light on policies for post-civil war construction and intergroup reconciliation.


  • Conflict Studies
  • Human Rights
  • International Law
  • Political Sociology
  • Security Studies


Displacement is a generic term used to refer to the involuntary movement of people due to human-made or natural disasters; thus, it falls into the focus of many social and natural sciences. Displacement as a result of civil war, however, is part and parcel of mostly political science and international studies due to the political nature of the cause of displacement as well as the need for new political arrangements and human relations in the displaced people’s new destinations.

The study of displacement in the field of international relations (IR) became more pertinent after the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of communist regimes, transition to liberal democratic models, and the increasing number of civil wars in formerly communist countries. In parallel to these developments, the world witnessed growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the 1990s. While many international studies focus on refugees, IDPs remain an important study area as states can still be held accountable for their acts and omissions regarding these displaced people, despite state sovereignty being a respected norm in IR (as stated in Article 2(7) of the United Nations Charter).

This article will address several definitions and statistics related to displacement originating from civil wars, reasons for and consequences of forced displacement, and international and domestic methods needed to address and overcome displacement-related problems. It will analyze the problems emerging from conflict-induced displacement,1 and will suggest solutions and avenues for further research by paying attention to the missing agendas in civil war and displacement studies.



Many terminologies have entered into the vocabulary of IR scholars in the study of displacement: refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, diaspora, to name only a few. It is important to clarify these definitions to pinpoint some of the major issues in IR.

Refugees are defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention (entered into force in 1954), which is a United Nations (UN) multilateral treaty. This convention defines who is a refugee and who is not, refugees’ rights, and the legal obligations of states towards them. According to Article 1 of the Convention, a refugee is someone:

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

(Geneva Convention, 1951, p. 14)

While the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee is a procedural one, the difference between a refugee and an IDP is more of a political one. An asylum-seeker is a person who seeks protection from persecution or serious harm in a country other than his/her own, awaits a decision on the application for refugee status under relevant international and national instruments, and then becomes a refugee when his/her application is approved. However, although many studies find the line between refugee and IDP definitions weak (Carens, 2013; Kurban et al., 2006), arguing that both terms apply to those who feel obliged or forced to leave and need protection, the difference is relevant to understanding the limits of influence of the international committee against sovereign states, and the protections available to displaced people. On the other hand, this distinction loses its importance in cases of armed conflict situations, since according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees and IDPs face similar risks in cases of civil war. IDPs remain, however, unable to gain the protection granted to those with refugee status, for practical or other reasons (see Parekh, 2017).

According to Article 2 of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, IDPs are the persons or groups of persons:

who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular, as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of, armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.

(United Nations, 2005)

This definition includes both the people who were forced to and felt obliged to leave their homelands. According to the Guidelines, internal displacement can happen due to development projects (development-induced displacement), disasters (disaster-induced displacement), and conflicts (conflict-induced displacement). What is important to note in the case of internal displacement is that international refugee laws protecting refugees against the discrimination imposed by the receiving states do not apply in cases of internal migration because IDPs remain within the borders of their states and the Guiding Principles are soft law; that is, they are nonbinding.

A diaspora community can consist of both voluntary and involuntary migrants, and their influence in migrant-receiving countries is important for IR scholars for various reasons. These communities live outside their homelands and “acknowledge that ‘the old country’ . . . always has some claim over their loyalty and emotions” (Cohen, 1997, p. ix). Some scholars of IR, especially approaching the issue from a constructivist point of view, define diaspora not simply as a dispersed ethnic group, but as an identity group constructed by the mobilization efforts of certain elites in the homeland, and emphasize the diaspora’s political engagement in both their homeland and receiving countries (Başer, 2013; Cohen, 1997).

Anderson (1992) argued that the significance of diaspora communities has increased, in part by the rapid rise of war refugees enlarging diaspora communities, and by the racist policies of the West which increases cooperation within the diaspora itself. They are the obvious group to mobilize external support for the ongoing civil wars and are increasingly capable of forging and sustaining social relations that link their societies of origin and settlement. This means that they can positively and negatively affect conflict and peace processes. Advancement in technology and increased social media usage made diaspora communities more directly involved with conflicts at home. Along with these developments, new racist actors and policies developed in the European and American states, making the study of diaspora communities the focus of multicultural citizenship debates and subjects of research on whether and how they support anti-racist actors. Last, but not least, the increasing occurrence of civil war is a social and political phenomenon that requires deeper social science explorations. This trend has necessitated social science researchers to study the direct effects of diaspora communities on their associated civil wars, and their indirect effects on their governments vis-à-vis the governments of their receiving countries applying political pressure or shifting civil war power dynamics.

Although there is disagreement on the definition and measurement of civil wars, most definitions label an armed conflict taking place within the borders of a state resulting in several losses as a civil war. For example, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP, 2006), referring to the fatality costs of civil war, defines it as organized violence that results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year, which takes place between a state and a rebel group within the territory of this state. Along with many human rights violations, civil wars provide “an ideal circumstance” for carrying out atrocities including cultural homogenization (see the article “Cultural Homogenization, Ethnic Cleansing, and Genocide”), resulting in the forced movements of people.

Conflict-induced displacement, a frequently used term to refer to displacement as a result of civil wars or international wars, can be due to many reasons. They can be the results of direct or indirect threat to human life when either state or nonstate actors, such as militias or gangs, create violence or an environment of terror and fear. In such environments, people tend to run away from chaos and random violence, as well as economic devastation (Lischer, 2007).


It is hard to estimate the total cost of a civil war since it needs to include true measures of nonfatal injuries, disability, reduced life expectancy, sexual violence, psychological trauma, displacement, loss of property and livelihood, damage to social capital and infrastructure, environmental damage, and destruction of cultural treasures. This is partly because of the political and security dynamics of the conflict itself (Lacina & Gleditsch, 2005) that make such estimations incorrect.

Although this difficulty is reflected in the estimations on the displaced populations, it is important to note, however, that many international organizations—governmental and nongovernmental alike—collect data on the reasons for displacement, numbers of people displaced, and the problems they face before, during, and after such disturbances. These data also serve as important tools of analysis for IR scholars. The UNHCR (2019) registered about 26 million refugees worldwide and 45.7 million IDPs (a total of 79.5 million forcibly displaced people including other categories). Most of the displaced populations are the results of civil war: Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and Afghanistan (IDMC, 2020).

Although these numbers demonstrate the devastating results of civil wars, there are many disguised consequences as well. Despite increasing efforts to collect data by scholars in various disciplines on specific populations in conflict, Lacina and Gleditsch (2005) argued that “there are compelling reasons to believe that there is a need for increased attention to non-battle causes of mortality, especially displacement and disease in conflict studies” (p. 145), and called on demographers to estimate the real costs of wars, including the number of displaced. However, despite the pressing need for accuracy of numbers on the displaced populations, many studies so far have addressed the negative consequences of forced population movements resulting from civil wars.

Civil War and Displacement

The factors that make people decide to leave their homes has always been an intriguing question for social sciences. Migration literature has long created a divide between voluntary and involuntary migration, based on the reasons which prompted displacement. While voluntary migration is said to be a result of economic motives, such as better jobs and better living standard, or for personal and social reasons, such as going to college, reuniting a family, breaking up a family (Brown, 1988); involuntary migration happens because of reasons beyond people’s control, such as construction of infrastructure projects, earthquakes, urban renewal and planning, disaster and development strategies, and war. Traditionally, the first two sets of reasons are called pushed factors since people are pushed by lack of opportunities or difficulties they face in the place of origin, and the last set is called pull factors since people are pulled by better options in another location (Kosinski & Prothero, 1975). Studies after the 1990s have largely abandoned the pull–push factors model, invalidating the definition of involuntary migration as nearly all “push” and no “pull” (Pilkington, 1998; Shami, 1994). Put another way, these studies have argued that even in involuntary migration there are choices migrants can make (e.g., city or rural, or city X vs. city Y to settle in), and these choices can be similar to those in voluntary migration (e.g., the existence of a relative, who established a life in the city of destination). However, push–pull factors still dominate the displacement terminology.

In the case of conflict-induced displacement, similar to voluntary migration, pull factors usually include democratic governance, economic prosperity, and job opportunities in the places of destination (Ozaltın et al., 2020), social networks that the displaced can make use of (e.g., kinship and family ties) (Davenport et al., 2003), the strength of diaspora communities, as well as conflict-specific political protection the receiving country can provide. Unlike voluntary migration, political and economic insecurities resulting from civil war, such as poverty, political instability, religious intolerance (Ozaltın et al., 2020), human rights abuses, and threats to physical security (Steele, 2009) oblige people to leave. These factors might come before or during war and depend both on difficult individual and group experiences. Studies on civil war show that economic deprivation and individual social support mechanisms, such as community-level organizations available elsewhere, affect people’s decision to flee along with the level of violence they experience (Adhikari, 2013; Bohra-Mishra & Massey, 2011).

In many IR studies, forced migrants are treated as rational actors who decided to leave based on a calculation of the costs of leaving or staying. State and dissident threats to personal integrity in civil wars are listed as major individual reasons for leaving (Davenport et al., 2003). Information cascades, that is information about a civilian’s neighbors, acquaintances, family members, and so on, fleeing and becoming a refugee, also increases one’s decision to flee for himself/herself (Laughlin, 2018). Based on this rationality, there are also studies that show how such decisions are made when collectivities are the targets, a situation in which individuals decide differently than in cases where they are targets of indiscriminate violence. Steele (2009) argued that when people are collectively targeted and cannot change their loyalties, they are faced with three displacement choices: seeking protection from another strong group, hiding in a different place anonymously, or hiding with similarly targeted people (clustering). The effectiveness of these options relies on community characteristics, such as whether the community resides in an urban or rural setting, and macro characteristics of the war, such as whether or not there is an ascriptive cleavage (Steele, 2009).

Conflict-induced displacement affects migrant groups and receiving societies in various ways. Conflict can be diffused, especially to neighboring countries, and sometimes to others that are historically known to provide better opportunities for refugees. Diffusion happens if the people experiencing civil war in one country increase the probability of conflict in another, leading to another round of conflict in the new place, or when ethnic groups in a neighboring state become motivated to make similar demands on their own government (Lake & Rothchild, 1988). Refugees are also blamed for causing a “cascade effect” (Balcells & Steele, 2016), a phenomenon known to take place when people follow each other to a new place, and their problems are then transferred to there, where they translate into new forms and increase in complexity.

Studies focusing on negative effects of displacement are interested in analyzing how receiving societies have to deal with new issues and problems as the displaced people arrive, ignoring the crisis and trauma felt by the displaced people. With increasing refugee movements in the post-Cold War era, measures began to be taken against receiving refugees, especially in Western countries, arguing that a “refugee crisis” would be a shock to their society, economy, and their way of life. A refugee crisis is usually defined by IR scholars as the sudden emergence of massive numbers of people fleeing from their homelands to other countries as a result of war or conflict, and is usually perceived as a concern for receiving states due to the suddenness of the movement and the inadequacy of resources; or in the simplest term as situations where large numbers of refugees or displaced persons are present (Lischer, 2008; Parekh, 2017; Salehyan, 2008; see also the article “Responding to Refugee and Humanitarian Crises”). They are usually presented as a burden on other states and threatening peace and security (Dowty & Loescher, 1996; Salehyan, 2008; Salehyan & Gleditsch, 2006).

Several studies challenge this approach and instead argue that the real “crisis” rests with refugees who experience conflict and trauma during their stay at home, and xenophobia, poverty, and problems in accessing basic services in receiving countries (Duman & Çelik, 2018). Therefore, it is incumbent upon domestic and international actors to improve the quality of life for refugees. The term “crisis” is utilized by receiving states as a cover for their lack of political will to protect refugees and to present migration as a security issue rather than a humanitarian one in which refugees need assistance adapting to their new societies (Jubilut, 2017). There are even those who argue that “in the face of the costs to refugees themselves and to the international community that is obliged to accommodate them, it is important to hold states accountable for creating refugee flows” (Procaccini, 2009, p. 272). While sending states are responsible for failing to protect the lives of their citizens, receiving countries also need to satisfy certain requirements. Duman and Çelik (2018) argued that governmental and nongovernmental actors are pivotal in improving the quality of refugee life in host communities and protecting their human rights (at the local level) while also mediating peace efforts for their possible return (at the international level).

Alleviating the hardships of the displaced and preventing conflicts between different ethnic groups in receiving societies has always been a popular research area. Since the 1920s, when migration studies started paying attention to the intergroup relations of urban areas (e.g., the Chicago school studying race relations in Chicago), migrant “adaptability” to new places and new cultures has been a well-explored research question. The assimilationist approach of the 1920s, which perceived displaced people as those who must assimilate into the host countries’ culture and way of life (Alba & Nee, 1997), has, since the 1990s, been challenged by many studies. These more recent scholars argue that integration of the displaced into new places requires the establishment of conditions where both the local and displaced communities “can co-exist, sharing the same resources—both economic and social—with no greater mutual conflict than that which exists within the host community” (Harrell-Bond, 1986, p. 7) and that integration is a two-way process between the displaced and the local communities and authorities. Garcés-Mascareñas and Penninx (2016), however, took this argument even further, reasoning that responsibility rests on migrants, receiving societies, and countries of origin, calling integration a “three-way process” (p. 1).

Expanding on these arguments, in recent years, the term “social cohesion” has become popular to describe the responsibilities of international actors, domestic political actors, displaced populations, and local communities. It is defined by the UN Development Programme (UNDP, 2009) as follows: “social cohesion is about tolerance of, and respect for, diversity (in terms of religion, ethnicity, economic situation, political preferences, sexuality, gender and age) – both institutionally and individually” (p. 14). Scholars defined it as the belief held by citizens of a given nation-state that they share a moral community, which enables them to trust each other (Larsen, 2013), or feeling a sense of belonging, participation, inclusion, recognition, and legitimacy (Munoz & Shanks, 2019) by the members of a society. From this perspective, bridging between local actors and migrant communities is needed to be established between the displaced and local communities as well as between the displaced and local authorities, leading to consensus-oriented or inclusive governance and peaceful societies. For this to happen, refugees need to be granted certain rights and IDPs need to be treated as equal citizens, and both need to be able to access services. To establish social connections, displaced people need to secure a two-way interaction between local communities and those of other national, ethnic, or religious groupings in their new receiving country, through cultural and vocational activities (Ager & Strang, 2004, p. 14). At the same time, they need to maintain social ties with their home communities (Garcés-Mascareñas & Penninx, 2016).

Civil War, Displacement, and International Law

Along with the change in perspective on integration studies in the 1990s, scholars also began to address displacement from a human security perspective. Human security, broadly defined, means freedom from pervasive threats to people’s rights, their safety, or even their lives. Approaching displacement from a human security perspective requires a rights-based approach to displacement and a shift in focus from state security to protecting citizens from both direct and structural violence by providing welfare, safety, and rights protection. Consistent with this approach, Goal 10 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals aims to reduce inequality within and between countries, where the key target is defined as facilitating “the orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” (Eurostat, 2018, p. 15).

A rights-based or human security perspective can be said to be even more vital in conflict-induced displacement, since forced migrants have fled either from state repression or state failure to protect themselves against violence from nonstate actors. A rights-based approach to displacement means that international and domestic actors are responsible for protecting and empowering refugees. Addressing group needs (e.g., citizenship rights) and individual necessities and rights (e.g., economic assistance) become the core of empowering refugees, recognizing displaced people as rights-holders with legal entitlements to protection and assistance, and states and other authorities as duty-bearers with responsibilities to respect and protect individuals’ rights (Çelik, 2015). The UNHCR (2019) defines a rights-based approach to displacement as “grounded upon and geared towards the full and equal enjoyment of rights” (p. 10), with the defense of these rights being the state’s foremost responsibility. This approach also highlights the necessity of receiving countries to take measures to fulfil refugee rights and strengthen means for peaceful coexistence. While international actors (both states and actors) must develop benchmarks to prevent refugee movements, as refugees are considered burdens to receiving societies, they must at the same time acknowledge that once displaced, refugees need access to social services provided by both domestic and international actors (Dowty & Loescher, 1996).

While there is a strong emphasis on refugee protection in international law, IDP protection remains a weak area. Internal displacement became the focus of UN protection in 1992, and later in 1997, when the representative to the UN Secretary-General brought it to the forefront of the international human rights agenda through an introduction of guidelines, namely the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which aims to prevent internal displacement and effectively deal with its consequences. Although not being a binding document (Hampton, 1998, p. 3), it is the only international document that defines the phenomenon and advises states on how to help IDPs. However, states can still insist that they can handle issues pertaining to internal displacement by their own means and prevent international material assistance from reaching IDPs. Cohen (1999) argued that states which reject international assistance are either not acknowledging that there is an internal displacement problem (i.e., in the cases of Algeria and Myanmar) or are insisting that they can handle the issue themselves (i.e., in the cases of Turkey and India). Both of these scenarios result in negative consequences for migrants’ physical security and material wellbeing. During and after displacement, states are obliged to protect the rights of the displaced, such as their right to life, guarantee the prohibition of torture and degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty and security, to fair and public hearings, land and resource access rights, and rights to freedom of movement and residence.

Humanitarian action is another contested topic that falls under international law, especially in internal displacement cases. Since Article 2(7) of the UN Charter prevents third parties (states or international actors) from intervening in the domestic matters of another state, humanitarian intervention either in the form of aid or peacekeeping operations remains a difficult task. Despite international communities increasing attention to “responsibility to protect”2—a doctrine which came into existence in the 2000s to increase states’ responsibility, especially in cases of civil wars, for protecting their citizens, and to hold states responsible for their acts and omissions, protection remains difficult to maintain in cases where relatively strong states can still effectively oppose direct international pressures and other indirect mechanisms such as isolation and shaming. The debate between humanitarian response and state sovereignty still triggers research in IR, particularly on cases where there is international interest due to natural resources, geographical significance, or political concerns (of major powers).

Despite these limitations, international response to conflict-induced displacement needs to bring together a large and diverse set of actors—both domestic and international (see the article “Responding to Refugee and Humanitarian Crises”). This diversity means that, while all different aspects of displacement can be addressed, if not coordinated effectively, chaos and unwanted harm can, however, prevail. That is why, with increasing and complex humanitarian response to displacement, an ethic of “do no harm” has emerged. “Do no harm” is a term coined by Mary Anderson (1999), which means that any actor planning an intervention needs to understand the context in which it will operate, be aware of the interaction between the planned intervention and the context, and act upon this understanding in order to avoid negative impacts while maximizing positive impacts. Also known as conflict-sensitive intervention, do no harm principle in the context of displacement implies that all involved actors need to be careful not to escalate civil war through their humanitarian assistance or peace-making attempts between the warring parties.

One of the contested and understudied issues in civil war and displacement studies is the relationship between state sovereignty and responsibility to protect. Despite increasing attention to state responsibility and accountability, especially towards minorities during conflicts since the 2000s, there is no agreed-upon norm on when states or international organizations can and should intervene to protect displaced people or even provide them with assistance. While third parties intervening in civil wars need to respect national sovereignty, the principle of the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action should also be preserved. Acting as such makes the protection of refugees and the IDPs and ensuring their access to humanitarian assistance and security during civil wars difficult and dangerous.

Gender and Displacement in Civil War

Civil war and displacement studies have a large blind spot when it comes to gender. With the development of a normative understanding in the study of civil war and displacement, there has been an increase in international responses and calls for action that adopt a gender lens to displacement and conflict issues. Perhaps the most important document in this respect is the UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, which acknowledges women both as victims of conflicts and agents for peace. Recognizing the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women, the resolution also stresses the international community’s neglect of women’s contributions in prewar, midwar, and postwar cases; that is, in conflict prevention before wars start, peace-making and civilian protection during conflicts, and relief and recovery in postconflict.

The resolution calls for a gendered lens in addressing civil wars, which requires respecting the civilian and humanitarian nature of refugee camps, and the consideration of the needs of women and girls when designing refugee camps and settlements. Reminding member states their responsibilities under the Geneva Convention and other international documents related to refugees, UNSCR (2000) “calls upon all parties to armed conflict to respect fully international law applicable to the rights and protection of women and girls, especially as civilians” (p. 3). That makes protecting women and girls an important priority during wars, not only from genocide and crimes against humanity, but also from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse. The resolution also underlines the “special needs of women and girls during repatriation and resettlement and for rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction” (UNSCR, 2000, p. 3).

Statistics on human rights abuses during conflict and displacement, as well as many studies in this area, mostly reflect “men’s suffering.” Since most combatants are male, statistics about civil wars reflect deaths from both sides, in addition to torture and military spending among other dimensions. When women become the focus of such research, statistics reflect human rights abuses, where women’s bodies become weapons of war, such as rape or sexual mutilation of female guerrilla fighters (Weiss, 2010). Traditionally, when gender is included in the study of war and displacement, women have been presented solely as “victims” of civil wars and patriarchal systems. This trend continues in UN reports and social science research. A UN report has showed that, with the changing nature of civil war, one emerging trend is “the use of sexual violence by armed groups – in Colombia, the DRC, Libya, and others – to induce the displacement of populations, oftentimes in resource-rich or strategic locations” (von Einsiedel, 2017, p. 8). It is common to come across such descriptions and conclusions in studies portraying displaced women’s negative experiences (Benard, 1994; Giles & Hydman, 2004).

Although there is abundant literature on how forced displacement affects women (e.g., Çelik, 2005; Indira, 1999; Nolin, 2006), it usually portrays them as “victims” of structural violence (Meertens & Zambrano, 2010) at places of origin and destination. Several studies, however, show that women’s experiences are not homogenous and that some experiences can also facilitate their empowerment, public participation, and voice. Social life in the receiving communities can also provide rare opportunities for displaced women, opening up new spaces for women’s agency and leadership within changing family and community structures (Rajasingham-Senanayake, 2000). Involvement in economic life can also strengthen empowerment (Çelik, 2016), even though it may also lead to marginalization, isolation, and discrimination.

Another important issue in the study of gender, civil war, and peace agreements is the inclusion of women in peace processes. Their inclusion would facilitate gender-specific provisions in peace agreements and the development of a gendered perspective in return and resettlement policies. Even though gender issues have started to become part of peace agreements—albeit marginally—much less attention is paid to the gendered aspect of displacement in peace processes. For example, from the adoption of UNSCR 1325 in 2000 until 2015, out of 49 peace agreements that made reference to women, 44 included refugee and displaced people’s issues. Of those 44, only two referenced gender mainstreaming in refugee issues, and only eight included gender in transitional justice and reconciliation measures (Aroussi, 2015).

Similarly, gender-specific discrimination is not prioritized in post-conflict peacebuilding efforts at either the practical level or in international law. States treat gender-specific return and reconstruction issues as low priority and, consequently, disregard their unique dimensions. Truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) around the world have also imposed a hierarchy of injustices on the human rights abuses that displaced people might have suffered. Considering the term “gendered” typically as referring to women’s bodies, international lawmakers also customarily define the gendered aspect of a conflict only in terms of sexual abuse. The variety of roles women play in war, displacement, and conflict are still mostly reduced to “women as victims,” with their demands for peace being condensed to “truth-telling” and “reparations” (Çelik, 2016). This limited view signals a need for more research on other aspects of gendered dimensions within civil war, displacement, and peace processes.

Finally, displaced lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people (LGBTI) communities facing multilayered discrimination in the places of origin and receiving countries or communities remains an under-researched topic. Although there are various studies on displaced LGBTI communities in countries like Colombia (Maier, 2020), Turkey (Freedman et al., 2017), and Uganda (MacQuaid, 2020), most of these studies remain case specific, pointing to a need for more comparative studies.

Return, Reconstruction, and Reconciliation

The question of when displacement ends has a vague answer. Whereas repatriation has been put forward by scholars and practitioners as a preferred option for addressing the displacement issue since the 1980s, there are studies which argue that it remains elusive in cases of conflict-induced displacement (Adelman & Barkan, 2011; Zolberg et al., 1986). These studies claim that most minorities, once displaced, never return, except as a result of power politics, not due to their right to return. In either case, the displaced people’s right to return is not justly implemented, and thus their detrimental, unjust treatment continues (Adelman & Barkan, 2011). Return, therefore, demands many measures to be taken by various actors, and if these measures are not effectively implemented, more dramatic results can follow, such as re-escalation of conflicts. Mooney (2005) argued that even though displacement ends when the displaced people are able to return home, the vulnerability of this population should not be disregarded in return processes.

While return is a right, studies show that willingness to return depends on various factors related to the displaced person and his/her family, his/her place of residence, and the conditions in the home country. People displaced by civil wars are increasingly likely to end up in urban areas rather than camps (Jacobsen, 2006). In studying willingness to return in post-conflict Bosnia, for example, Metivier et al. (2017) found that while the rural displaced tend to value community returns, the urban displaced are unlikely to do so. Similar results were found elsewhere, especially in places where forced migrants establish a new life (Kurban et al., 2006). Since the decision to return usually comes as a family rather than an individual decision, family dynamics can also influence returns (Metivier et al., 2017). Finally, less nationalistic displaced people seem more interested in returning to a minority situation in their home country than those who are more nationalistic (Metivier et al., 2017). This strong resistance to return can be attributed to post-conflict domestic politics favoring ethnic majority nationalists (Adelman & Barkan, 2011), especially for those who support ethnic minority nationalists. Considering that many civil wars have ethnic dimensions, it is important to take into account ethnic minority–majority relations in places of return.

Studies on forced displacement converge not only on the idea of the displaced people’s rights in the receiving countries and communities, but also on their right for return as war continues and after peace is established. However, this right is conditional upon displaced people’s willingness to return, as they will inevitably adapt to their new homes, especially in long-lasting conflicts, and the willingness to return might depend on various factors and conditions (Kurban et al., 2006). For countries torn apart by civil war, many measures need to be taken to encourage the displaced populations to return and radical changes have to be taken to knit communities together and establish long-lasting peace. For return to be sustainable, intergroup trust needs to be established through mechanism of peaceful coexistence, the displaced people’s property rights need to be respected, and if needed, compensation claims need to be honored, and a broad range of social and economic rejuvenation projects need to be implemented in the places of return. Sustainable returns are possible only if safety is secured (e.g., by removing landmines, reforming security systems, or disarmament of fighters), new job opportunities are provided, access to public services, psychosocial rehabilitation, and due process restitution or compensation for lost property are guaranteed, and parties to the civil war commit themselves to reconciliation efforts.

Ending displacement is certainly “a process” in which the displaced people must be able to return, feel part of the society, and their human rights are fully respected by the home state and societies. However, ending conflict-induced displacement is a long process encompassing various political, economic, social, security, and relational dimensions. Since civil war is an outcome of many historical, economic, social, and political problems, solutions need to deal with the root causes of civil war. That is the only way for the displacement process to end and for the return process to be reconcilable, sustainable, durable, reliable, and dignified. In many cases, this means parties of conflict must talk about these issues at various leadership levels and come up with mutually agreed upon solutions; that is the return, reconstruction, and reconciliation processes should not be seen as limited to high-level politics, but rather mid-level and grassroots leaders should be actively involved in their design and implementation (Lederach, 1998).

Political issues concerning return include designing inclusive political systems where the displaced, along with the populations who stayed in their place of residence during the war, feel represented through inclusive power-sharing and wealth-sharing arrangements. It is important that the displaced people are included in the peace settlement processes or consulted about their attitudes on possible post-conflict governance models. IDPs, diaspora communities, and returned refugees are a key electoral constituency who can shape the outcome of political settlements by supporting or opposing provisions affecting their lives (Psaltis et al., 2020). However, if such referendums take place before civil wars are peacefully settled, many questions can remain contested, such as what part of the disputed territory will the referendum concern, who will be eligible to vote, from what options will voters choose among, and how will the results be determined (Johansson, 2009). Since the displaced communities might have differing needs and interests than other affected communities, it is crucial to undertake research on their perspectives of return and peace (Çelik, 2016; Psaltis et al., 2020). Studies also point to the need for inclusive local institutions for durable return. Arguing that return migration creates new identity divisions based on whether and where individuals were displaced during wartime, new cleavages in postwar societies can become new sources of conflict when local institutions produce differential outcomes for individuals based on where they lived during the war (Schwartz, 2019).

Economic issues concerning the return of the displaced mostly include the reconstruction of war-torn places, economic collapse, and job security for the returnees. Since civil war results in disrupted social services, economic ruin, and destroyed houses, roads, and infrastructures, states need to invest substantively to improve development levels of the regions where the displaced will return (Arowolo, 2000; Ghosh, 2001) and reconstruct infrastructure for social services and private property destroyed during civil war. However, it should also be noted that in many cases civil war occurs because there was no infrastructure or there was a great discrepancy between the regions on infrastructural capacity. Therefore, rather than “re”-constructing, there is a need to construct such facilities for the returnees.

Reconciliation is another necessary component of return processes. Roughly defined as a process “by which parties that have experienced an oppressive relationship or a destructive conflict with each other move to attain or to restore a relationship that they believe to be minimally acceptable” (Kriesberg, 2001, p. 48), reconciliation is needed for the betterment of local and returnee communities as well as for ex-combatant and displaced relations. While some argue that migrants hold more conflictive and polarized attitudes after war (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004), others show that returnees’ greater access to coping mechanisms can reduce such beliefs and promote inclusive and reconciliatory attitudes (Hall, 2016).

Reconciliation processes need to address various issues: truth, acknowledgment of wrongs, justice, forgiveness and healing, compensation, trust across the divide in the society, and individual or group security and wellbeing. Since civil war results in trust being broken between social groups and between ethnic groups and outgroup leaders (Beber et al., 2014; Hall et al., 2018; Hetherington & Suhay, 2011), it is important that this trust be restored at the political and community level, which requires changes in community leader discourse, dialogue, and trauma recovery initiatives at the community level, and establishment of formal (e.g., TRCs, legal prosecution of perpetrators, and so on) or informal truth and justice mechanisms (e.g., indigenous justice and healing mechanisms, such as the Gacaca courts in Rwanda). According to UN Principles and many international documents (such as the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement), displaced persons who have been harmed during war have the right to access justice and effective remedies. Comprehensive and coordinated reconciliation efforts, therefore, are necessary for sustainable societies and durable returns.


Displacement resulting from civil war has been a popular research subject among IR scholars since the 1990s. However, many studies focus on the negative consequences of forced migration, undermining how refugees and IDPs can also contribute to the cultural and political environment of receiving societies. Many studies still argue that movements (especially of refugees) to other countries create internal security concerns because “refugees can change the ethnic composition of the host state; exacerbate economic competition; bring with them arms, combatants, and ideologies that are conducive to violence; and mobilize opposition directed at their country of origin as well as their host country” (Salehyan & Gleditsch, 2006, p. 338). There is a pressing need for international studies scholars to investigate the positive contributions forced migrants make to the place they reach.

It can also be argued that among forced migrants IDPs still remain as an understudied group. While refugees have been a popular research area, especially with devastating civil wars around the world, IDPs are often overlooked by scholars. There are many studies on how refugee movements may trigger conflict (Lischer, 2008; Saleyhan & Gleditsch, 2006), and the spatial diffusion of conflict within a state’s borders and what role internal displacement plays in such a dynamic (Bohnet et al., 2018). Similarly, while the security, economic and lifestyle concerns of receiving countries are highly addressed by scholarly studies, security concerns of the forced migrants are undertheorized (Duman & Çelik, 2018; Schwartz, 2019). Studies on reverse migration and their potential effect on returnees and their ex-enemies (e.g., paramilitaries, other ethnic groups, nonmigrants who took over migrants’ properties, and so on) not only can broaden knowledge on post-conflict societies, but also help policies designed to promote durable and peaceful return of displaced populations.

The study of conflict-induced displacement persists in treating the displaced as a homogenous category, and thus consequences of displacement as well. Lischer (2007) argued that there is a huge variation in types of conflict, motivations for violence, and the resulting patterns of displacement within the category of civil war. Consequently, she suggested that one needs to study who the actors that force displacement in a civil war are, and their intention in doing so (intentionally using it as a tactic or unintentionally causing them to move) as they tremendously affect return dynamics. Based on this assumption, it is important to undertake research on return and reconciliation by treating displacement and return as a continuum and paying attention to conflict parties in civil war. Similarly, there is also a need for more research on people who choose to stay during civil war in order to better understand the factors contributing to forced displacement despite limited data in conflict-prone zones (Ozaltın et al., 2020). This will lead to better return processes.

The IR field also needs more studies reflecting predictions on displacement. While displacement because of civil war is an important international agenda, social sciences so far lack the ability to predict possible displacement zones in the world. There are various studies which mostly focus on the minorities who can rebel against governments (e.g., Minorities at Risk project) and on their potential to trigger conflicts, but little has been written on governments’ and rebel groups’ potential displacement capacity, and places where they can force civilians to move. Finally, despite increasing attention to gender, nationalist ideologies and women’s role in peace processes, there are still few studies reflecting the gendered aspect of forced displacement.

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  • 1. In this article, conflict-induced displacement is used synonymously with displacement uprooted by civil war.

  • 2. Responsibility to protect (R2P) came as a result of an international effort led by the Canadian government, International Commission on the Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in September 2000. The report ICISS (2001) argued that although main responsibility to protect lays within the sovereign state, the international committee has a responsibility to react if it is unable or unwilling to fulfil this duty, especially in cases of genocides.