The accepted wisdom is that the 2015 refugee crisis has been one of the main factors behind the recent success of the extreme-right parties in many European countries. In contrast, new research by Matteo GamalerioMario LucaAlessio Romarri and Max Viskanic, presented at the European Economic Association’s online meeting in August 2020, suggests that a well-managed reception of refugees reduces the electoral support for extreme-right parties.

The research finds that the change in the votes shares of extreme-right parties between the 2013 and 2018 Italian national elections was smaller in municipalities that hosted refugee reception centres than in towns that did not host refugees.

The research finds that the centres’ size plays a critical role. The negative effect on extreme-right parties’ electoral performance is more substantial for reception centres that hosted smaller numbers of refugees. Conversely, the effect becomes positive for bigger centres. Besides, the research shows how more access to broadband internet, a channel that can potentially distort natives’ opinions on refugees, offset the effect of the reception centres on extreme-right vote shares.


The research focuses on Italy, a country that recently experienced a significant surge in refugees, accompanied by an increment in the political support for extreme-right parties, like the Lega led by Matteo Salvini. As in many European countries, the politicians of these parties have used alarmist tones intending to generate a feeling of fear and hatred towards foreigners. Extreme-right parties described immigration as an uncontrolled phenomenon, made up of boats and large refugee centres that create tensions with natives.

The study looks at the opening of refugee reception centres through ‘The Protection System for Asylum Seekers and Refugees’ (SPRAR), one of Italy’s most important reception programmes. Municipal governments manage these small and medium-sized refugee centres.

These centres aim to integrate the refugees in the local community. For this reason, refugees attend language courses and job training. Besides, municipalities often employ refugees in public utility works, which fosters interaction with the local population. Hence, SPRAR centres offer the possibility of direct contact between refugees and natives. 

The research finds that hosting refugees negatively affects the vote shares of extreme-right parties. Municipalities that opened a SPRAR centre between 2013 and 2018 national elections experienced a change in the votes shares of extreme-right parties approximately 7 percentage points lower than towns that did not open SPRAR centres. Simultaneously, the opening of SPRAR centres benefited the mainstream political parties, like the left-left Partito Democratico.

The analysis highlights two important mechanisms behind this result. First, the size of the centres plays a critical role. The negative effect on the vote shares of extreme-right parties is greater in municipalities that hosted a smaller number of refugees. 

Specifically, the researchers find that the effect is negative for towns that hosted less than 28 refugees for every 1,000 inhabitants. Conversely, municipalities that opened a centre with a number of refugees above this threshold experienced an increase in the political support for the extreme-right parties.

This result’s policy implication is that governments should try to redistribute refugees and asylum-seekers in a more homogeneous way and through the opening of diffuse and small reception centres.

Second, the research highlights how the internet can distort opinions. The analysis shows that the opening of SPRAR centres did not affect the vote shares of extreme-right parties in municipalities with more access to broadband internet. Indeed, citizens in these areas are more likely to be exposed to the messages of far-right politicians who use social media as their primary means of communication. 

This use of the internet and social media can reduce the importance of the direct contact between refugees and natives and contribute to the spread of the image of uncontrolled immigration portrayed by members of the extreme right.

In conclusion, the study debunks the myth that refugee inflows and support for extreme-right parties are positively related. But it stresses that migration policies must be designed and implemented so as not to generate a feeling of invasion in the population, as often described by nationalist parties.


A working paper is available at:

Note: a previous version of this paper circulated with the title ‘Finding the Warmth of other Suns? Refugee Reception, Extreme Votes and Hate Crimes.’


Alessio Romarri is a PhD candidate at the Institut d’Economia de Barcelona (IEB), University of Barcelona. 



Twitter: @alessio_romarri


Matteo Gamalerio is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institut d’Economia de Barcelona (IEB), University of Barcelona.



Twitter: @matteogamalerio


Max Viskanic is a research fellow at LIEPP and IC Migrations.



Twitter: @max_viskanic


Mario Luca is an associate at Analysis Group.