Forced Migration, Social Cohesion and Conflict: The 2015 Refugee Inflow in Germany

Emanuele Albarosa and Benjamin Elsner

World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series, No. 9913 (2022)


This paper investigates whether large-scale refugee arrivals in 2015/16 affected social cohesion in Germany. Over one million asylum seekers arrived in Germany between 2014 and 2016.

To estimate a causal effect of refugees on social cohesion, the authors exploit the fact that asylum seekers in Germany were assigned across federal states according to the state’s population and tax revenues two years prior (i.e., unrelated to economic, political or social conditions at the time). The authors measure social cohesion across several dimensions including generalized trust, perceived fairness, attitudes towards foreigners, and anti-immigrant violence. The analysis draws on regional data on asylum seeker inflows, data from the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) panel survey, and regional data on incidents of anti-immigrant violence.

Main findings:

  • There is no evidence that refugee inflows affected self-reported measures of social cohesion, at least in the short run. There is no evidence that inflows of refugees affected social attitudes and perceptions such as trust, perceived fairness, attitudes towards foreigners, or economic concerns. Additionally, there were no discernible effects on attitudes in areas with high or low employment, and in areas with a high or low share of right-wing voters.
  • The local presence of refugees increased the incidence of anti-immigrant violence. The incidence of anti-immigrant violence increased disproportionately in counties receiving larger numbers of refugees. This increase was mainly driven by attacks on refugee accommodation and was concentrated among the top 10 percent of municipalities with the largest inflows of refugees. The effect was stronger in areas with high unemployment and in areas with a higher share of right-wing voters.

Overall, the findings suggest that, while the general population does not react to the presence of asylum seekers, a small segment of the population shows extreme reactions, in the form of anti-immigration violence. The authors conclude that high-income countries can absorb large numbers of refugees without major impacts on social cohesion. Moreover, policies that foster inclusiveness and empathy with immigrants should be adopted and targeted in areas that are prone to anti-immigrant violence.  Based on the relevant literature, the authors indicate that perspective-taking interventions— such as priming family immigration stories among natives— can increase support for refugees. They also point out that promoting narratives that raise awareness on specific aspects of the experience of refugees, such as the hardship they faced, can have positive effects on intergroup and policy attitudes.