Document Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

David H. Clark


In civil wars, innocent civilians live in the shadow of violence and destruction. This can range from low-level violence to aggressive campaigns of shelling of urban areas and massacres of entire villages in rural settings. In some cases, civilians respond to this violence by fleeing from the conflict to find refuge in neighboring states; however, in other civil wars, civilians remain trapped in the conflict zone, creating humanitarian disasters. This dissertation argues that civilians will flee when they have a reasonable, safe place to seek refuge, but in the absence of a safe place to seek sanctuary, civilians have no choice to but to stay put. When civilians can flee from violence, this vents the pressure from the conflict; however, if there is nowhere to run, civilians will not only remain in the conflict zone, but will feed back into the conflict processes. Civilians are a resource in civil wars that armed actors can leverage toextract resources, pull in humanitarian aid, coopt to join the conflict, and otherwise sustain the continuation of the fighting. If civilians are trapped and vulnerable in a conflict with high levels of violence and have no paths to flight, they become easy pickings for armed actors, which in turn fuels the conflict further; this creates what I call a pressure-cooker conflict state.

To test this theory, this project introduces original data on how states treat refugees, and subsequently uses this data to create measures of the ability to flee—or “exit quality.” I conduct empirical analyses using these new measures and find that, if civilians are exposed to violence, civil wars that lack safe exit options tend to be bloodier conflicts that flare quickly but also burn out sooner. This project shows, then, not only that states surrounding civil wars can shape civilians’ choices to flee based on how they treat refugees, but that this also in turn shapes the development of civil wars. Shutting off opportunities for civilians to escape from conflict is problematic not only because it creates a humanitarian crisis, but also because it can change the course of the conflict.