Refugees and Social Capital: Evidence from Northern Lebanon

Anselm Hager and Justin Valasek

WZB Discussion Paper, No. SP II 2020-301


This paper examines impact of refugee settlement on social cohesion in Northern Lebanon, a developing country with a history of ethnic and sectarian conflict, where refugees represent about 25 percent of the population. Lebanon captures two important features of refugee migration in developing countries that are different from the ‘developed world’: (1) arriving refugees may have an initial social distance that is closer to the native population, and (2) initial political and social institutions may be less robust. The authors focus on the impact of refugee settlement on prosocial behavior such as trust, altruism, cooperation and reciprocity between social groups. They consider the impact of the refugee crisis on social capital between three social groups: the native population (Lebanese), the new refugee population (Syrians), and an established migrant population (Palestinians). They examine two channels through which proximity to new refugees impacts social capital: a “global” impact as the country as a whole reacts to the challenge of settling new refugees, and a “local” impact as individuals react to an influx of refugees in their local communities.

The analysis is based on survey responses from 1,000 Lebanese respondents from districts in the immediate north of Lebanon (Akkar, Hermel and north-eastern Baalbek). The authors employ an instrumental variable approach to address the potential endogeneity of refugees’ settlement choices, using altitude as the instrumental variable. Key results:

  • Respondents that are primed with the refugee crisis (i.e. first asked several questions about the impact of the refugee crisis on their families and the country) respond by reporting lower levels of social capital towards Syrian refugees, suggesting a negative global impact of the refugee crisis on social capital.
  • The priming effect on social capital is driven entirely by respondents with no local exposure to refugees.
  • Proximity to refugees is positively related to natives’ reported measures of trust and prosocial preferences towards refugees. The positive effect of contact dominates conflict between natives and Syrian refugees in areas of co-habitation.
  • Proximity to recent refugees has a positive spillover effect on other migrant groups: Lebanese natives in closer proximity to Syrian refugees also report higher levels of social capital towards Palestinian refugees.


The authors conclude that, while developing countries may have less stable political and social institutions, the potential negative impact of a refugee crisis is mitigated a close physical proximity to refugees, which results in a higher degree of positive contact.