Does Aid Reduce Anti-refugee Violence? Evidence from Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Christian Lehmann and Daniel Masterson

American Political Science Review, Volume 114, Issue 4 (2020), Pages 1335 – 1342


Lebanon, a country with a population of 4.5 million, has received more than a million refugees since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Most Syrian refugees live in individual accommodation in Lebanese towns. This paper examines the effect of aid to refugees, in the form of cash transfers, on anti-refugee violence.

Between November 2013 and March 2014, UNHCR provided cash assistance program to Syrian refugees in Lebanon to help them get through the colder winter months. Refugee households were targeted for cash assistance if they lived in a location at or above 500 meters altitude. The authors exploit this quasi-random assignment of benefits to compare eligible refugee households slightly above 500 meters altitude (treatment group) to similarly poor refugee households living in communities slightly below 500 meters altitude (control group). The analysis was based on survey data from over 1,300 Syrian refugee households living between 450 and 550 meters altitude. To measure hostility towards refugees, researchers asked whether refugee households had experienced physical aggression or verbal abuse from Lebanese in the community during the previous six months.

Key findings:

  • Over 5 percent of survey respondents reported verbal assault and over 1 percent reported physical assault by Lebanese community members. Most respondents (56 percent) attributed anti-refugee violence to economic factors, including the perceptions that refugees were taking local jobs or increasing prices, while 17 percent of respondents attributed anti-refugee violence to refugee households receiving humanitarian assistance.
  • The number of refugees in a community is indeed negatively correlated with the daily wage rate for agricultural labor. A one percent increase in the size of the refugee population is associated with a 0.05 percent decrease in local wages. Additionally, a refugee’s labor supply (hours worked) is a statistically significant predictor of violence in the survey data.
  • Cash transfers to refugees did not increase anti-refugee violence and may have reduced it. Cash transfers appear to have reduced physical violence by an estimated 2.7 percentage points and reduced verbal assault by an estimated 7.5 percentage points.
  • Survey data provides evidence of possible mechanisms including that aid allows recipients to: (a) indirectly compensate locals through higher demand for local goods and services; (b) directly benefit locals by offering help and sharing aid; and (c) reduce contact with potential aggressors.

The authors note that local economies adjusted well to refugees receiving cash transfers with large positive effects on food consumption of recipients and no effects on local prices. In other contexts, widespread programming could cause inflation (if market supply is unable to accommodate large shifts in demand) and may thereby increase hostility toward refugees.