Refugee Migration and Election Outcomes

Christian Dustmann, Kristine Vasiljeva, Anna Piil Damm

The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 86, Issue 5 (2019), Pages 2035–2091


This paper estimates the causal effect of refugee migration on voting outcomes in parliamentary and municipal elections in Denmark. The authors also examine how particular characteristics of a population augment or diminish the effects of refugee allocation on electoral outcomes. The authors address the problem of immigrant sorting by exploiting a policy that assigned refugee immigrants to municipalities on a quasi-random basis. The analysis is based on data from the 13 years of Denmark’s random refugee dispersal policy, which encompass three parliamentary and municipal electoral cycles. Key findings:

  • In all but the most urban municipalities, allocation of larger refugee shares between electoral cycles leads to an increase in the vote share for right-leaning parties with an anti-immigration agenda. In all municipalities except those with a population above the 95th size percentile, a one percentage point increase in the refugee share of the municipal population between electoral cycles increases the vote share for anti-immigration parties by 1.23 and 1.98 percentage points in parliamentary and municipal elections, respectively. Centre-right parties similarly increase their vote share in response to refugee allocation, although to a lesser extent, while parties on the left side of the political spectrum lose. The effect of refugee allocation on voting for the extreme right is stronger in municipalities with: (a) a larger share of previous immigrants; (b) higher crime rates; (c) larger shares of more affluent individuals; and (d) higher dependency of existing immigrant populations on welfare. On the other hand, the higher the share of the municipality population that pays church taxes (interpreted as a measure of altruistic beliefs), the lower the shift in votes to anti-immigration parties in response to refugee allocation. These findings conform to group threat theories, but contradict the contact hypothesis.
  • In the largest and urban municipalities, increased refugee allocation causing a decrease in the vote share for anti-immigration parties, possibly because anti-immigration parties’ rhetoric does not entice urban voters. The effect becomes larger with the share of rich individuals, becomes smaller with the share of unemployed, and is unaffected by the share of previous immigrants or immigrant welfare dependency.
  • No evidence of an impact of refugee allocations on turnout for parliamentary elections, but some evidence for a higher turnout for municipality elections. A one percentage point increase in the refugee allocation share increases voter participation by between 0.6 and 1.8 percentage points.
  • Anti-immigration parties respond strongly to refugee allocations when deciding in which municipality to stand. These effects are exacerbated by the share of pre-policy immigrants who live in the municipality; there is little evidence that other municipal characteristics influence the magnitude of the refugee allocations effect on the probability of anti-immigration parties standing for election.

Overall, the authors find considerable heterogeneity in municipal populations’ responses to refugee allocation in terms of pre-policy characteristics, and different responses in large and urban municipalities versus small and more rural municipalities. Additionally, past immigration and current refugee settlement are major factors in determining the regional spread of anti-immigration parties. The authors suggest that allocation practices that take municipal (or even country) characteristics into account, rather than random allocation based on equalizing the share relative to the resident population, may be preferable as they mitigate the emergence of radical parties.

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