Forced Displacement and Asylum Policy in the Developing World

Christopher W. Blair, Guy Grossman, Jeremy M. Weinstein

International Organization, Volume 76, Issue 2 (2021)


This paper analyzes the correlates of asylum policymaking in low- and middle-income countries, which host more than 85 percent of refugees and asylum seekers globally. The authors also examine the role of de jure policies as pull factors in flows of forced migration.

The analysis is based on a novel dataset of asylum policies in developing countries, the Developing World Refugee and Asylum Policy (DWRAP). The dataset includes 229 domestic laws relating to forced displacement in 92 African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian developing countries between 1952 and 2017. For each law, the dataset includes 54 codes across five policy fields: (1) access: ease of entrance and security of status; (2) services: provision of public services and welfare; (3) livelihoods: ability to work and own property; (4) movement: encampment policies; and (5) participation: citizenship and political rights.

The authors also draw on additional data sources including: (a) the UCDP Armed Conflict data set to test the relationship between conflict and forced displacement policy change; (b) data on ethnic groups, their access to state power, and their transnational ties from the Ethnic Power Relations (EPR) dataset; and (c) net bilateral aid from donors on the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD to test the relevance of countries’ dependence on external economic assistance.

The data suggests the following stylized facts:

  • There is much diversity in asylum policy liberality, which cannot be explained by regional clustering.
  • Developing countries have been gradually liberalizing their asylum and refugee policies, while developed countries have been moving in more restrictive directions. Policy liberalization has been pronounced in the areas of access and movement and comparatively slower in the areas of livelihoods and participation.

Main results:

  • Developing countries alter their asylum policies in response to intense civil wars breaking out in neighboring countries, which raise expectations of future forced migrant flows and the salience of forced displacement.
  • Policy liberalization is more likely when political elites have co-ethnic kin who are excluded from power in neighboring conflict-affected countries. This suggests that countries may be willing to bear greater costs to host co-ethnic kin groups.
  • No generalized evidence was found that repressive regimes liberalize displacement policy in exchange for aid, although this dynamic is relevant for some specific cases.
  • As in Western countries, national wealth is associated with migration policy restrictions in the developing world.

The authors conclude that developing countries confront different constraints and opportunities when responding to forced displacement. For example, the presence of ethnic kin in neighboring countries and reliance on external aid may influence a country’s policy on forced displacement.