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Whither Will They Go? A Global Study of Refugees’ Destinations, 1965–1995


  • Author’s note: A substantially different version of this paper was presented at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL, 15–18 April, and a more recent incarnation at the Workshop on the Economics of Forced Migration, MIT, 9–10 December 2005. We wish to thank T. K. Ahn, Shaun Bowler, Tom Carsey, Jim Cobbe, Matt Krain, Mark Lubell, Lanny Martin, Sara Mitchell, Sol Polachek, Kevin Quinn, Chris Reenock, Rafi Reuveny, Marc Rosenblum, Jackie Rubin, Idean Salehyan, Mark Souva, and Jeff Staton for helpful discussions, as well as Courtenay Ryals, several anonymous reviewers, the participants at the MIT Workshop, and colloquia at Rice University and Florida State University for their comments and suggestions. This research was partially supported by the National Science Foundation (SES-0099313) and the Council on Research and Creativity at Florida State. We also wish to thank Bela Hovy of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees for sharing their data with us. Andreas Beger, Brad Ellis, Ahmed Khanani, Kristin Kosek, Jackie Rubin, Brandon Stewart, and Jeff Weber provided efficient and helpful coding and data management support. We are solely responsible for the views and interpretation of the data reported here. A replication data set is available at the ISQ data archive web site


A common public perception in OECD countries suggests that refugees are mostly “economic migrants” in search of a better standard of living. Does the empirical record belie this belief? The authors explore that question within a rationalist approach using aggregate-level data that allow them to explore a variety of other covariates of the choice to seek refuge in one country relative to another. In addition to wages, they consider fear of persecution, culture, and the costs of relocation. The results are at odds with the “bogus refugees” image: the effect of average wages is mediated by proximity such that higher average wages are associated with fewer refugees, except among bordering countries. In addition, refugees seek asylum in neighboring countries, especially those at war with their own country or those experiencing a civil war. Those who seek refuge in countries other than their neighbors follow colonial ties.