Abstract: Most autocracies restrict emigration, yet still allow some citizens to voluntarily exit. How do these regimes decide who can leave? We argue that many autocracies strategically target anti-regime actors for emigration, thereby crafting a more loyal population without the drawbacks of persistent cooptation or repression. However, this generates problematic incentives for citizens to join opposition activity to secure exit. In response, autocracies simultaneously punish dissidents for attempting to emigrate, screening out all but the most determined opponents. To test our theory, we examine an original dataset coded from 20,000 pages of declassified emigration applications from East Germany’s state archives. In the first individual-level test of an autocracy’s emigration decisions, we find that active opposition promoted emigration approval, but also punishment for applying. Pensioners were also more likely to secure exit and professionals less likely. Our results shed light on global migration’s political sources and an overlooked strategy of autocratic resilience.
Moderator: Stephen Chaudoin
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