Effects of respect for international humanitarian law on displacement (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1393)

This report focuses on armed conflicts in the past 10 years (2006-2016) and relates to internal or international displacement


The question asked for this helpdesk report:

  • Is there evidence that the degree of respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) during an armed conflict affects levels of displacement? Focus on armed conflicts in the past 10 years (2006-2016). Cases can relate to internal or international displacement, and to any type and number of armed belligerents. The connections considered can involve direct or indirect factors or effects, such as the role of disrupted livelihoods. If possible, also signpost evidence on whether the degree of respect for IHL impacts how long civilians are affected by a crisis.

Much of the literature agrees that violence against civilians is the primary driver of displacement. However, while a few causalities can be considered established, authors frequently note that findings are either correlations (rather than causalities), or that the causalities need clarification. High-quality literature on population movements has long demonstrated that, even under violent conditions, displacement (like return) is differentiated by individuals, households, and contexts.

Available knowledge is based on a range of quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-method research. The knowledge base offers good, though uneven, coverage with relative geographic diversity and a breadth of thematic coverage, including types of armed conflicts and warfare, a range of direct and intermediate variables involved in the relationship between warfare and displacement, and various types of displacement within countries and across borders. Knowledge gaps include research on trapped populations who cannot flee and a lack of consideration for structures of inequality at all levels that may shape decisions to flee.

The rapid literature search identified a limited though rigorous evidence base, by using proxies for ‘respect for IHL’ such as violence against civilians by armed groups.

The main findings from multi-country studies are as follows:

  • considered at macro level, warfare is typically followed by displacement. However, the causality from warfare to displacement is not automatic, linear nor mono-causal

  • mobility is just one among many strategies that civilian groups, households and individuals adopt to survive and cope with war and its consequences. In most wars, a large proportion of the population, if not the majority, do not move away. Civilians may stay through choice; others are trapped against their will into a lack of mobility. In both cases, civilians who remain elaborate self-protection strategies other than displacement to cope

  • violence, economy, and politics shape the level of displacement, its type , its geography, the groups affected, and its timeframe. Violence against civilians is the main driver of displacement, but conflict dynamics determine how civilians make decisions about their mobility based on violence and economic conditions, as well as their willingness to trade income for improved security. Socio-economic factors also shape mobility. Some of these interact with armed actors’ degree of respect for IHl, but others focus on the characteristics of civilian households: armed groups target groups of civilians with particular characteristics and some households can protect themselves better than others

  • there is no strong empirical evidence to date that armed conflicts increase trafficking in person, though they do exacerbate the root causes of conflict


Combaz, E. Effects of respect for international humanitarian law on displacement (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1393). GSDRC, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2016) 26p

Effects of respect for international humanitarian law on displacement (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1393)

Published 2 October 2016