Countries receiving refugees have responded to them in a variety of ways. Some host countries have adopted more generous refugee policies than others, and single countries have shifted between generous and restrictive responses over time. The central research question for this project is: What explains these differences in states' refugee policies?

This project argues that a given state's choice of refugee policies cannot be adequately explained by examining its internal security concerns, economic climate, or public attitudes. Instead, this study will demonstrate that international and domestic political competition lead countries to adopt a distinct set of policies for each group of refugees they receive. On the one hand, states use refugees to reassure international allies and exert pressure on rivals. At the same time, governments have political incentives to favor refugee groups who share their predominant ethnic identity. Treating countries as though each had a single blanket refugee policy masks important disparities in treatment between refugee groups.

Two methods will be used to address the research question and investigate the theory described above: statistical analysis and case studies. First statistical analysis will explore general patterns in countries' decisons to admit refugees onto their territory. Second, three case studies will be conducted. Egypt, Kenya, and Turkey share some of the same refugee groups, but each country has a different ethnic composition and a different history of relations with its neighbors. The case study approach allows us to examine the policymaking process in richer detail and incorporate a broader spectrum of refugee policies into the analysis. The statistical and case study components complement each other, and in combination provide greater confidence in our findings.

Besides the intellectual merits of the project, it will have two main broader impacts. First, a new dataset on refugee flows will be made public. Second, results may inform the activities of the UN Refugee Agency as as well as relevant local and international NGOs.

Project Report

This project asks why countries open their borders to some refugees while blocking others, and why a number of countries have given the United Nations (UN) control of asylum procedures and refugee camps on their territory. This selective exercise of sovereignty is puzzling, particularly since regulating migration is often portrayed as the last bastion of state control. Where previous studies had emphasized material resources and humanitarian concerns, this project theorizes that countries’ approaches to refugees are shaped by a combination of international and domestic factors. At the international level, political relations between the refugee-sending and receiving countries shape the sort of reception refugees receive. Domestically, policymakers are concerned with political competition between ethnic groups. For these reasons, interstate rivalry and affinity with co-ethnics lead to generous refugee policies, while refugees from allies who lack ethnic ties receive harsh treatment. When they face conflicting incentives and pressures, policymakers delegate to the UN to avoid antagonizing refugee-sending countries or domestic constituencies. The project combines quantitative and qualitative analyses, which complement each other and provide greater confidence in the findings. First, a global dataset was assembled to examine why countries accept or reject asylum applications, and when they delegate decision-making on these applications. This statistical analysis demonstrates a relationship between refugee admissions and delegation on the one hand and interstate competition and ethnic affinity on the other. Then, the project traces the mechanisms underlying asylum policymaking in three case studies of refugee-receiving countries (Egypt, Kenya, and Turkey). Here, it draws on four months of fieldwork and close to fifty interviews with policymakers, researchers, and representatives of relevant international organizations and NGOs. This research adds insights to the scholarly literature on political responses to globalization, the politics of migration and asylum, and the international sources of domestic politics. The results can inform the activities of UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by allowing them to target their advocacy and assistance to particular refugee groups. The theory can also help concerned states and the international community forecast when exerting pressure will bear fruit, and when other tools (such as resettlement) must be used instead. The project addresses a puzzling real-world phenomenon that is particularly timely in light of the current refugee crisis in Syria, and that impacts the lives of millions of refugees around the world. Exploring when and why the rights of these vulnerable populations are respected or abused has enormous normative and policy importance.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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Princeton University
United States
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