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




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. The majority of Syrian refugees live in individual accommodation in Lebanese towns. Existing theory and policy debates predict that aid to refugees exacerbates anti-refugee violence by increasing hosts’ resentment toward refugees. This paper presents quasi-experimental evidence that cash transfers to refugees do not increase, and may in fact reduce, anti-refugee violence.

The analysis is based on survey data from 1,358 Syrian refugee households living between 450-550 meters altitude. Since only refugees living in locations at or above 500 meters altitude were eligible for cash transfers (UNHCR targeted refugees residing in colder climates during winter months), the authors employ a regression discontinuity design,  comparing refugees eligible ‘poor’ households slightly above 500 meters altitude (treatment group) to otherwise eligible ‘poor’ households living in communities slightly below 500 meters altitude (control group). To measure hostility towards refugees, researchers asked whether Lebanese in the community had been physically aggressive or verbally abusive to household members in the past six months.

Key findings:

  • There were no systematic differences found between treated and control communities in terms of geography (latitude/longitude), demography (number of Lebanese and refugees), climate (temperature and precipitation), economy, and religious sect.
  • 5.2 percent of respondents report verbal assault, and 1.3 percent report physical assault, by Lebanese community members. Respondents believe that economic consequences of the refugee influx for host communities are the primary drivers of violence, with higher unemployment and inflation accounting for 56 percent of the hostility experienced by refugees. 17 percent of respondents believe that receiving humanitarian aid was one of the reasons for anti-refugee violence.
  • The number of refugees in a community is negatively correlated with the daily wage rate of 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 our data.
  • Cash transfers to refugees did not increase anti-refugee violence, and may have reduced it.
  • 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 in survey areas, 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
resentment/hostility toward refugees.