Hosting Refugees Does Not Increase Conflict Risk—Instead, It May Reduce It

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Leah Costik, covers the new article by Yang-Yang Zhou, University of British Columbia, Canada and Andrew Shaver, University of California, Merced, United States,  Reexamining the Effects of Refugees on Civil Conflict: A Global Subnational Analysis

Within the last decade, political rhetoric around the presence of refugees within host countries has become increasingly polarized. Yet, what do we know about how refugees impact their new communities? For example, does the presence of refugees in a host country harm domestic security? Such a fear is unfounded, according to political scientists Yang-Yang Zhou and Andrew Shaver. In their American Political Science Review article, Zhou and Shaver investigate a commonly held assumption within academic and policy circles: the presence of refugees in host countries increases the likelihood of domestic conflict. The authors demonstrate the arrival of refugee communities can help, not harm, the conditions of local communities through two avenues: increased economic activity and development. More often than not, they conclude, “refugees and host communities simply co-exist.”

Zhou and Shaver theorize that refugee settlements can bring about benefits to local development, which balances out or outweighs risk factors that might negatively impact local security conditions. To investigate their theory, the authors worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Field Information and Coordination Section to put together and validate a now publicly available global dataset of displacement (refugees and internally displaced persons) locations from the 1960s to 2019. They paired these locations with information on subnational conflict outcomes from 1990-2018 to see if the presence of these refugee communities has any effect on conflict. In total, the authors examined subnational provinces throughout all countries that have ever hosted refugees during their study period. Given data availability on refugee populations, refugee communities within the African continent from 2010-2015 were used as a secondary study. Zhou and Shaver also investigated what factors cause provinces with refugee communities to experience a decrease in the likelihood of conflict. Finally, to complement their quantitative analysis, the authors conducted interviews with current or past senior staff members of the UNHCR.

“The findings of Zhou and Shaver’s article are important and timely. With climate change and political violence forcing more and more people to flee their homes, the settlement of refugee communities may increase.” Interestingly, Zhou and Shaver find that refugee communities’ presence has no effect on conflict outcomes measured as conflict onset, prolonged incidence, number of violent events, and number of battle deaths. Furthermore, when certain conditions are met—when refugee settlements are geographically concentrated, have been established for a certain period of time, and when refugee populations are larger—hosting provinces experience substantial reductions in conflict risk. The authors use placebo tests and matching methods to address the possibility of selection bias, such as refugees selecting to go to safer, more developed places. Refugees who settle into geographically concentrated areas can bring with them an increased state presence, humanitarian aid efforts, and economic activity, which ultimately benefits nearby host communities. Refugees’ presence can also incentivize governments or international and domestic organizations to provide goods and services, such as healthcare and new sanitation infrastructure, to local community members. This provision of social services can have a calming effect; since these services are offered to both refugees and host country nationals alike, tensions are less likely to flare over unequal treatment. Refugees’ presence can also trigger the development of essential infrastructure, such as roads and electrification. Such infrastructure allows the host country’s government to prevent or suppress conflict through increased state capacity. Indeed, the authors provide suggestive evidence that provinces which host refugees also experience increases in nighttime lights (as a proxy or “stand in” for development). Zhou and Shaver argue that together local economic activity and increased development largely counterbalance the negative effects of refugee resettlement and result in the maintenance of a general status quo.

In sum, the presence of refugees tends to have no effect on the likelihood of domestic conflict and can actually decrease such likelihood. The findings of Zhou and Shaver’s article are important and timely. With climate change and political violence forcing more and more people to flee their homes, the settlement of refugee communities may increase. Highlighting the positive impact such communities can have where they settle is a way to clarify and emphasize the valuable contributions refugee communities bring with them.