Maximum Pressure | 2023 | Events

Maximum Pressure: How Refugee Repatriation Shapes Conflict
Chris Blair headshot
Chris Blair
Princeton University
December 6, 2023


How does mass refugee return shape conflict dynamics in destination communities? In 2018, the Trump Administration imposed so-called “Maximum Pressure” sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. Renewed sanctions devastated the Iranian economy, spurring the exodus of more than 400,000 Afghan refugees from Iran back to Afghanistan at the height of the 2018 fighting season. Leveraging historical returnee settlement patterns and the plausibly exogenous timing of the sanctions, we estimate the causal effect of large-scale refugee repatriation on violence. We draw on previously unreleased combat records from NATO to show that mass return of Afghans from Iran increased insurgent-initiated violence in returnees’ destination communities. Currency devaluation pursuant to sanctions in Iran may have reduced household income, lowering reservation wages in communities where returnees repatriated. Consistent with this hypothesis, policy-induced return had heterogeneous effects on insurgent violence, increasing use and lethality of labor-intensive combat. Falling household income also reduced the cost of government tip-buying, resulting in greater effectiveness of counterinsurgent bomb neutralization missions. While insurgent violence increased in repatriation communities, there was no effect on social conflict. Strong social capital and local institutions for dispute resolution help blunt risks of refugee return for communal violence. Our study provides causal evidence demonstrating the link between sanctions-induced refugee return and political and social conflict. These results are economically significant, highlighting unintended consequences of repatriation and clarifying the conditions under which refugee return affects conflict. Raising economic well-being and supporting social capital and legitimate, local institutions are key antecedents for safe refugee return.


Christopher Blair is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. In 2023 he received a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Chris also holds an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. with Highest Distinction in Foreign Affairs and History from the University of Virginia. 

His work spans international relations and comparative politics, with a substantive focus on conflict, migration, and climate change. The main questions motivating his research are: (1) how counterinsurgency policies impact rebel and civilian behavior; and (2) how prospective hosts respond to forcibly displaced and climate-displaced people. In a related, secondary agenda he also investigates public opinion on foreign policy. Chris uses an array of quantitative and qualitative tools, including design-based causal inference, original and archival data collection, and qualitative interviews. Geographically, his research concentrates on Global South settings.

Chris’s research is published or forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, the American Political Science Review, International Organization, and the Journal of Politics, among others. He has received generous financial support from the World Bank, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANN), Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP), Time-Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS), and the Data-Driven Social Science Initiative (DDSS), among others.  You can also find his commentary in Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, Defense One, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.