What explains the dynamics of civilian staying and migration in civil wars? My basic argument is that patterns of conflict displacement result from the dynamic interaction in which states and rebel groups vie for civilian populations as a crucial, mobile resource in conflict. Previous research has examined the ways in which incumbent governments strategically displace people, or confine them to certain areas. For rebel groups, though, we only have anecdotal evidence of mobility control, from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, for instance, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, or the Colombian rebel group FARC. I draw on qualitative evidence from my own fieldwork on the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009) to theorize mobility control as part of insurgent statecraft in war. My theory yields innovative implications for when and where insurgent groups seek to displace or emplace civilians as a strategy linked to both warfare and governance. Its predictions bear the potential to challenge current assumptions and practices related to the strategic design of counterinsurgent campaigns and the sub-national distribution of humanitarian assistance.

Working paper available upon request.

This study scrutinizes the validity of my theory on mobility control by states and rebel groups. I conduct a large-N survey with war-affected populations in Sri Lanka to test the theory’s predictions at the individual level. The questionnaire has been designed to trace the respondents’ individual migration trajectories throughout the conflict in a systematic way, recording the timing, starting point, and destination of each displacement. The survey items also capture patterns of territorial control as well as subjective experiences of armed conflict, and economic deprivation.