The globalization of refugee flows

Xavier Devictor, Quy-Toan Do, and Andrei Levchenko

Journal of Development Economics, Volume 150 (2021)

Working paper available here.


This article analyzes the spatial distribution of refugees over the period 1987-2017, in order to ascertain whether the burden of hosting refugees falls disproportionately on neighboring countries in the developing world.

The empirical analysis is based on data on refugee stocks (including asylum-seekers) by source and destination country compiled by UNHCR. The authors construct four measures of refugee spatial distribution: (1) average distance refugees have traveled between their country of origin and their country of destination (controlling for source country fixed effects); (2) the probability that countries of origin and destination are contiguous; (3) the Herfindahl index of refugee shares by source country (a measure of refugee spatial dispersion); and (4) the share of refugees seeking protection in high-income OECD countries.

Main results:

  • The average distance traveled by refugees has increased substantially over time. Between 2012 and 2017, the average distance traveled is about 40 percent larger than it was between 1987 and 1991.
  • The share of refugees fleeing to an adjacent country has fallen. The share of refugees in a contiguous country falls by 16 percentage points after controlling for source country fixed effects.
  • Refugees for a given source country are now more dispersed across host countries. The Herfindahl index of refugee shares decreased substantially over time.
  • High-income OECD countries host an increasing share of the refugee population. In 1990, less than 5 percent of refugees lived in high-income OECD countries. This share grew to nearly 25 percent by the mid-2000s, before falling to 15 percent. 

These results highlight a more globalized and far-reaching refugee network and imply a more equal distribution of the responsibility of hosting refugees. While countries neighboring a conflict do host a majority of refugees, nevertheless the share of refugees who move to more distant destinations, including OECD countries, has grown over time. The authors conclude that the responsibility to provide asylum to those fleeing conflict and violence is increasingly being shared across countries. The authors note, however, that current responsibility sharing remains deeply uneven.