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Mobility Control as State-Making in Civil War: Forcing Exit, Selective Return and Strategic Laissez-Faire

by Christiane Fröhlich, Lea Müller-Funk

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Submission summary

Authors (as Contributors): Christiane Fröhlich
Submission information
Preprint link: scipost_202204_00014v1
Date submitted: 2022-04-11 13:30
Submitted by: Fröhlich, Christiane
Submitted to: Migration Politics
Ontological classification
Academic field: Political Science
  • Migration Politics


This paper addresses the question of how different actors govern mobility during civil war, and how mobility control and processes of state-making interact in such settings. Mobility in civil wars is often considered a political act by the various actors involved: Leaving the country can be perceived as an act of opposition, as can moving between territories which are controlled by different, opposing factions. Drawing on literature on strategic displacement and on migration politics and civil war as a form of state-making, as well as empirical insights from the ongoing wars in Libya and Syria, the paper identifies three mechanisms of mobility control in civil war settings: forcing exit, selective return, and strategic laissez-faire. The analysis reveals that all three mechanisms are employed by state actor(s), rebels, and militias alike, and depend on how these diverse actors perceive—and discursively construct—displaced populations: Forcing exit and selective return as a form of expulsion are directed towards displaced people who are perceived as threats and as undesired, while strategic laissez-faire is practiced towards displaced populations perceived to be unthreatening. We interpret the three mechanisms as ways in which actors in civil war settings attempt to manipulate a country’s demography to their own favour in a process of state-making. We show that, in our case studies, forcing exit and selective return are common in spaces where there is a dominant governing actor. Where rebels intervene only minimally to maintain their monopoly over the use of violence, forcing exit and laissez-faire mechanisms prevail. The paper is based on fieldwork conducted between 2018 and 2021 in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Tunisia.

Current status:
Has been resubmitted

Submission & Refereeing History

Resubmission scipost_202204_00014v2 on 20 October 2022

Reports on this Submission

Anonymous Report 2 on 2022-7-9 (Invited Report)

  • Cite as: Anonymous, Report on arXiv:scipost_202204_00014v1, delivered 2022-07-09, doi: 10.21468/SciPost.Report.5371


General comment
The paper is interesting and definitely worth publishing, but a little bit disappointing as the empirical material (that is flagged out in the introduction) is not mobilised as it could.
More importantly, I am doubtful of the general argument: mobility control as state making. I think there is value in understanding mobility as a “policy” (to be defined!!) in civil war, used by different groups, but I am not convinced by the “state making “argument – I think the notion of “State” as it is commonly understood is rather misleading in the context of Syria, and possibly of Libya, and in particular with regard to forced mobility/immobility.
If I were the authors, I would either develop this argument robustly or rather focus the paper on mobility control and suggest a typology and use the empirical material to illustrate this typology. That would be an analytical proposition interesting enough without needing this unconvincing argument of state making, that is too weakly developed in the paper, as far as for my reading.
The value of the comparison is not striking in the paper. It feels more a juxtaposition that two examples that help to understand a question… This could be better intertwined. Syria is the main example and the one that is the most convincing with regard to the research question…

Here are detailed remarks on different sections.
A clearer stance could be made on definitions: the terms of migration/ mobility / movement are used as synonyms, whereas they are not. A better definition of the concepts involved in the paper could improve the analytical accuracy of the paper.
Also, clarification on the central argument of the paper could be made clearer:
Why controlling mobility is interesting for actors involved in a civil war? More importantly, why “demographic engineering” is an instrument of state making (this is stated rather than argued)? Is mobility control the same thing as population control (on one’s territory)? What is more important for an actor in a civil war: controlling mobility or controlling the population? Does mobility control really happen?
Definition of the object: one can see what mobility control involves when an area is besieged, or a border fenced and militarized, but otherwise?
The paper gives the impression that actors are actually able to control – is its really the case in general (even in non civil war contexts, see the issue of illegal migration) and in Syria and Libya in particular? There is something to be critically discussed more thoroughly than to cite Betts and his “implicit forms of governance” here.
I would also mention the fact that talking about State with regard to the Syrian regime is a bit of a fiction: it is more a mafia supported by militias and businessmen, and most importantly by Russian and Iran, rather than a State – a note on this may be needed, as otherwise one has a false representation of what the actors at play are – a similar situation of State degradation in Libya.
1. With regards to Syria, its borders (porous and with different border regimes), mass displacement as a weapon of war, and linking internal/external displacement, the authors may want to look at Vignal, 2017, “The Changing Borders and Borderlands of Syria in a Time of Conflict”, International Affairs, 93/4, 809—827. Chapters 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 of Vignal, 2021, War-Torn, The unmaking of Syria (2011-2021) are relevant on mobility control.

First section
The section properly explains why mobility control is important for actors in a civil war and defines all the terms involved BUT fails to define mobility on the one hand, and mobility control on the other – or at least saying there that the paper precisely aims at exploring which type of mobility control takes ace in civil war settings, and why (to reinforce the actors operating mobility control).

Section 2
Also, it would be better to avoid terms such as “boundaries” that have a double meaning: territorial one and abstract one. Page 6 for instance: the “boundaries of identity”: ambiguous – territorial or political? Important to distinguish the territorial and the abstract meanings when you discuss actual mobility, ie with a territorial implication. You could use here “set the limits” or “definition” etc.., of belonging…”.
Page 7: Considering the ambition of the paper, it is surprising that the focus is (in addition to the displaced people) on “the community of practitioners consists of policymakers and international stakeholders involved in migration governance and humanitarian aid”: I would have expected that the authors were looking at the “local” actors? Needs clarification.
I am not sure that the definition given of practices (pouliot) is crystal clear here.
What is “practices tracing”? this is not explained – readers need to be explained and explained as well why this method is relevant for your analytical objective.

Section 3:
Table 1 should be put just after it is mentioned (top of page 8) otherwise this quite abstract paper becomes difficult to follow.
Also, related to the definition of practices, when looking at the table, one understands “practices” in their more general meaning – this needs to be clarified as it confuses the reader whereas it should not -- it is quite straightforward.
Authors may be interested in a discussion of terms displaced refugees, nazihin/muhajerin etc), in Lebanon by Aubin-Boltanski and Vignal ( “Hosting and Being Hosted in Times of Crisis: Exploring the Multi-layered Patterns of Syrian Refuge in the Dayr al-Ahmar region, Northern Bekaa, Lebanon”, in Mobility and Forced Displacement in the Middle East).
With table 1, one understands better what is understood as mobility control: a few examples and the mention of table 1 could be introduced in the introduction.
Page 10: the border with Lebanon is not closed as far as I am aware? And also: one would need to distinguished between securitized border (walled etc, such as Tur/syr) and very porous one (LEB/SYR). Also, distinguish between legal and illegal crossing…
The paper does not explain why and how the authors chose this typology (these three mechanisms).

Page 11:
A sentence on how many people do return would be a useful contextualisation (very few).
“All governing actors have a return policy: goS, SDF, HTS, but we see no return, so (…) they are completely failing at implementing their return policy, which makes you question – do they really have a return policy, or have they just written a policy to appeal to their patron, or to their sponsor? So, does the Syrian government really want Syrians to return, or are they just doing it because Russia told them to do it? And does the Syrian opposition really want Syrians to return to its areas or are they doing it just because Turkey told them to do it?”: the authors validate their analysis with the use of a quotation, that is the analysis of a Syrian respondent rather than a scientific analysis – more significant if this quote was presented as the way in which some sections of the society see the implementation of return policies ….

P12: practices of taming do not need strong institutions in my view…. Ie it is not the strength of institutions that makes them successful. Here, I link with my previous remarks in the notion of State versus non state , and the fact that the Syrian state is pretty dismantled. And the Hezbollah, on which the paragraph expands, is not a State group…P16 (but this is often the case elsewhere) we need dates, there as in other places, otherwise the conflicts feel like ahistorical streams…… (“After Ramadan, we returned to the area of Jabal al-Zawiya, the…” then At the same time, the region has become a refuge for IDPs fr …“ )
“demographic engineering” is used by Syrians in many different ways and with regard to many different actors. As a not a scientific notion -- I think it would be better here to explain that those policies are perceived as demographic engineering – the authors develop their own analytical tools, why do they not use them here?

  • validity: -
  • significance: -
  • originality: -
  • clarity: -
  • formatting: -
  • grammar: -

Anonymous Report 1 on 2022-6-11 (Invited Report)

  • Cite as: Anonymous, Report on arXiv:scipost_202204_00014v1, delivered 2022-06-11, doi: 10.21468/SciPost.Report.5220


The paper has key strengths in:

1) Novel Data
2) Coverage of literatures
3) Attempting to bring together two aligned but rather different
fields and research traditions
4) Useful cases and elements of comparison
5) Highlighting opportunities for future research


The paper has weaknesses in:

1) Lack of depth and full clarity on methodology
2) Fully marketing its ideas
3) Some minor gaps in literature which offer opportunities for
more depth
4) Some structural/signposting issues - the empirical materials
in the section before the conclusion are not deployed or
extrapolated to best effect


This article has a lot of potential and with some polish can absolutely be published. Most of the changes are either for clarity or are intended to make better use of the data. One of the key changes however is to strengthen the methodology section which is at present too limited and descriptive. Another key change is to make better use of the micro level cases from the data - linking them more explicitly to the previous section and into the conclusion itself (the latter sells the article short in some ways and could do with ending on a different note). I would also suggest a few other sources which might be profitably consulted. In essence this is a minor R&R which just requires a bit of polish the data are good and the article is well put together so very close to being publishable already.

Requested changes

I have a fully annotated document (handwritten) which includes both stylistic and substantive changes which the authors might wish to take into consideration.

  • validity: good
  • significance: high
  • originality: high
  • clarity: high
  • formatting: excellent
  • grammar: good

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