Refugees welcome? Inter-group interaction and host community attitude formation

Alexander Betts, Maria Flinder Stierna, Naohiko Omata, and Olivier Sterck

World Development, Volume 161 (2023), Article 106088


This paper investigates the role of refugee-host interaction in influencing host community attitudes towards refugees in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. The authors also explore the factors, other than contact, that shape attitudes of host communities towards refugees, and how host communities’ perceptions of refugees vary across different domains (economy, security, culture, rights).

The analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative data collected from refugees and nearby host communities in urban and camp-like contexts in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia between 2016 and 2018. The survey covered the three capital cities (Kampala, Nairobi, and Addis Ababa) together with three groups of camps or settlements: the Nakivale settlement in Uganda, the Kakuma camps in Kenya, and the Dollo Ado camps in Ethiopia. The analysis of hosts’ perceptions of refugees focused primarily on Uganda because only Ugandan hosts were asked about their interactions with refugees.

Main findings:

  • The association between refugee-host interactions and perceptions appears to be more salient in urban contexts. In Uganda, there is a small positive association between refugee-host interaction, but only in Kampala and not in the Nakivale settlement.
  • A large part of attitude formation takes place at the intra-group level, within households and communities. Respondents’ attitudes are closely correlated with other household members and immediate neighbors.
  • The type of interaction between refugees and hosts may have heterogenous effects on attitudes in different domains and of different types of people. Types of interaction (e.g. business exchange or social interaction) may matter differently for attitudes in different domains (e.g. the economy, security, or rights), and have different impacts on different types of people (e.g. high or low socio-economic status households).
  • Ethnic and linguistic ties between refugees and hosts matter for perceptions and attitudes. Positive attitudes towards refugees are usually observed in contexts where both host and refugee communities are of Somali ethnic origin.
  • Hosts in urban and rural contexts have different attitudes towards refugees. While urban hosts are less tolerant of refugees than rural hosts, and often see refugees as an economic burden, they are more progressive in their attitudes towards refugee rights and feel less threatened from a security perspective by refugees’ presence.

The authors conclude that an important part of attitude formation appears to take place at the intra-group level, within households and immediate neighborhoods, independently of individual interaction with the out-group. They suggest that contact may be most effective in in promoting refugee-host social cohesion in the context of (a) shared norms (e.g. ethno-linguistic proximity); (b) mutually beneficial socio-economic opportunity; and (c) within-group community structures that amplify positive perceptions.