Do refugees cause crime?

Aysegul Kayaoglu

World Development, Volume 154 (2022), Article Number 105858


This paper examines the short- and long-term impacts of Syrian refugees on crime rates in Turkey, either because they are directly involved in illegal activities or because they increase the criminality of the native population. At the time this analysis was undertaken, there were 3.7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, the majority of whom were living in urban areas.

The Syrian refugee population differs from the native population in several important respects: (1) few Syrian refugees have work permits and they are more likely to work in the informal sector; (2) there is a higher proportion of young, single men among the Syrian refugee population; and (3) on average Syrian refugees have lower educational attainment (half of Syrian refugees in Turkey are illiterate and more than 90 percent have less than a high school education). The theoretical literature on crime suggests that these characteristics may contribute to a higher propensity for crime.

The author exploits the variation in the refugee presence and inflows across the country and compares crime rates before (January 2009 to January 2013) and after (January 2013 to January 2014) the mass arrival of Syrian refugees in Turkey to assess short-term effects. For long-term effects, the author looks at the entire period from January 2009 to January 2017. As a proxy for crime rates, the author uses data from the Ministry of Justice on the number of new cases opened each year at the Basic Criminal Court (cases with potential sentences of less than 10 years) and at the High Criminal Court (cases with potential sentences of 10 years or more).

Main results:

  • Syrian refugees do not have any impact on crime rates in Turkey in the short or long term. Provinces with refugee shares among the total population above 1 percent (treatment provinces) in 2013 did not experience an increase in crime rates within one year of the refugee inflows. Neither did these provinces experience an increase in crime rates in the long term.
  • The arrival of Syrian refugees leads to a decrease in per capita crime rates in Turkey. As Syrian refugees display a lower propensity to commit crimes, their presence leads to a reduction in per capita crime rates, while it has no effects on the crime rates per native residents.
  • Refugees do not have an effect on the crime rates per native resident. This suggests that refugees, on average, have a lower propensity to commit crime compared to natives, and do not increase the criminality of natives.

The authors conclude that refugees have a lower propensity to commit crime, and post that this is because of the higher deterrence costs they face in their host countries such as the risk of imprisonment or deportation.