What happens to communities that receive refugee inflows? New research by Cyprien Batut and Sarah Schneider-Strawczynski finds evidence that in France, the population in refugee-hosting municipalities decreases by about 2% relative to similar municipalities in the two years following the opening of a refugee housing centre.

The population decreases because inflows of new residents to refugee hosting municipalities are halved: prospective newcomers avoid municipalities with refugee centres while already established residents do not appear to leave the municipality more. 

Given that there is no evidence of an impact on the labour market nor of a rise in crime following the opening of the refugee housing centre, the study postulates that what explains these population changes are anti-refugee prejudices. 

A frequent theme of the anti-refugee rhetoric is that the arrival of refugees is detrimental for hosting communities. When refugees enter a territory, they are said to compete with local inhabitants over scarce resources like jobs, housing or public goods, and harm them as a result (the ‘rival guest’ hypothesis). 

Another possibility is that, if anything, the reaction of inhabitants, for instance through self-segregation, may hamper the economic prospects of refugee-hosting municipalities (the ‘defiant host’ hypothesis). 

What a majority of people don’t know is that most refugee centres are too small for their openings to pose a credible threat for local inhabitants. Since the 1980s, most European countries have implemented various shades of what are usually called refugee dispersal policies. They favour the opening of many small refugee centres all over the territory to prevent the concentration of refugee inflows. In France, there is on average one refugee for 333 inhabitants in refugee hosting municipalities, which means that any competition between them is unlikely. 

This also means that the openings of these centres are the ideal experiments to test the native defiance hypothesis, that is whether prejudices against refugees could lead people to leave (native flight) or avoid cities with refugees (native avoidance). 

Using administrative datasets from France, this study looks at the evolution of population two years before and after such openings between 2004 and 2012. Compared to control municipalities, population in refugee hosting municipalities declines slowly following the opening because of lower inflows of new residents, whereas inhabitants of hosting municipalities do not leave at a higher rate. 

In the meantime, as expected given the small size of the centre, the number of workers and the number of crimes are unaffected by the refugees’ arrival. This suggests that both the labour market and criminality cannot explain the decrease in the population. It is then likely that prejudices against refugees explain the decline in population.

From these results, it can be inferred that one way to reduce the local economic impact of refugee inflows is to address anti-refugee prejudices in order to limit native avoidance. 

This study finds that a smaller population also means less consumers and taxpayers at the local level, resulting in lower tax revenues for municipalities and less wealth created by local firms. The unintended consequence of raising awareness among locals and highlighting the relative harmlessness of refugees would be to improve the economic prospects of refugee hosting municipalities. 



Cyprien Batut,, +33647850981, @BatutCyprien