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Do rights violations deter refugees?

Pages 110-133 | Received 09 Aug 2021, Accepted 03 May 2022, Published online: 16 May 2022


Do crackdowns by destination countries deter refugees? Much of the existing literature conflates containment measures (forcibly restricting refugees in their home region or country) and deterrence policies (discouraging refugees by making the destination appear less attractive). In addition, empirical studies have focused almost exclusively on Western countries and analyzed the effects of acceptance rates or policy reforms on the number of asylum applications lodged. In contrast, this paper examines whether rights violations deter asylum-seekers and refugees by leveraging a global dataset drawn from reports by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. I find that deportation, detention, and encampment are not associated with decreases in asylum applications or refugee arrivals, and may actually be correlated with increases in them in some cases. While reduced access to the labour market may deter very small numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees, there are other sound reasons for destination countries to eschew restrictive employment policies.

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1 Governments may also implement measures to encourage asylum-seekers to leave the country, once they have arrived. Hassan (Citation2000).

2 Of course, containment measures can also have a deterrent effects. For example, a putative asylum-seeker’s choice of destination may be shaped by concerns about their application being rejected. For an extended discussion of this point, see Kent, Norman, and Tennis (Citation2020).

3 Low acceptance rates may reflect policies that restrict access to asylum procedures through, for example, narrow interpretations of the 1951 Refugee Convention, time limits for submitting applications, accelerated procedures and the exclusion of ‘manifestly unfounded’ applications, limiting appeals, the designation of ‘safe’ countries of origin, and granting temporary or subsidiary protection. Vedsted-Hansen (Citation1999).

4 The question of how asylum-seeker attributes, or perceptions of their ‘deservingness,’ may shape their treatment in host countries has been studied elsewhere and lies beyond the scope of this paper. Brader, Valentino, and Suhay (Citation2008), Hainmueller and Hangartner (Citation2013), Meidert and Rapp (Citation2019).

5 In 2010, the top refugee hosting countries were Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Germany, Jordan, Kenya, Chad, China, the US, and the UK. The top destinations for asylum-seekers were South Africa, the US, France, Germany, Sweden, Ecuador, Malaysia, Canada, the UK, and Belgium. UNHCR (Citation2011).

6 In countries exhibiting differences in rights across refugee groups, USCRI rates that country based on the treatment of the least-favored refugee group.

7 A similar calculation is conducted in my recent study that uses these data. Abdelaaty (Citation2021b).

8 An examination of variance inflation factors indicates that the models presented below do not suffer from multicollinearity, however.

9 This variable is positively correlated with Physical Protection, Due Process, and Movement, and negatively correlated with Livelihood; however, none of these correlations are strong. As noted in fn. 8, the models reported in the paper do not appear to suffer from multicollinearity.

10 There are 64 unique destination countries and 158 unique origin countries.

11 On the use of a cross-nested model to capture substitution between destinations, see Beine, Bierlaire, and Docquier (Citation2021).

12 The inclusion of origin-year dummies to control for multilateral resistance to migration is adapted from Ortega and Peri (Citation2013).

13 More precisely, UNHCR calculates the recognition rate as the number of decisions recognising asylum claims in any one year, relative to the number of claims decided upon. The analysis here is restricted only to those directed dyad-years in which there was some positive number of applications. As a result, it may exclude cases where the destination was so unattractive to asylum-seekers such that none applied to that country. Processing times may also shape destination choice, as shown by Bertoli, Brücker, and Fernández-Huertas Moraga (Citation2020).

14 It is worth noting that recognition rates are weakly correlated with the refugee rights variables. For example, Refugee Rights GPA has a Pearson’s r of 0.122 with the refugee recognition rate and 0.092 with the total recognition rate.

15 To avoid dropping observations with a zero value, I added one to Asylum Applications and Refugee Arrivals before taking the natural log.

16 For more on the estimation of gravity models for international migration, see Beine, Bertoli, and Fernández-Huertas Moraga (Citation2016).

17 On the relationship between refugee returns and violence, see Schwartz (Citation2019).

18 In his analysis of asylum applications in European countries, Thielemann (Citation2006) similarly finds that work restrictions have a negative and statistically significant effect, while other deterrent measures (like safe third country provisions, restrictions on freedom of movement, and prevention of cash payments) do not have a statistically significant effect.

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