Behavioural approaches to integrating refugees

There were 25.4 million refugees worldwide by the end of 2017, an increase of 2.9 million in just one year. The surge in refugee populations in host communities has led to heightened suspicions about accepting refugees, and whether they can truly assimilate into the local culture.

Refugees learning English in a class with International Rescue Committee. (Pew Research Center)

This has presented a challenge to the sustainable integration of refugees, a pressing issue given that resolution of the conflicts that have displaced these populations remains a far more unlikely solution. In 2017, only 667,400 or 3% of refugees returned to their country of origin, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s report.

Common reasons for concerns about refugees

Even though concerns about refugees vary according to the context of each country and community, there are some common themes.

For example, a major factor driving nationalist sentiments in the West is that refugees’ religious and cultural practices are so different from that of the native population that conflict is inevitable. Europeans living in historically-Christian countries perceive that the majority of refugees from the Middle East subscribe to extremist Islamist views, and thus, hosting more refugees increases the likelihood of terrorist attacks.

Furthermore, it is argued that because refugees speak a different language and have a poor work ethic, they are unable to find jobs, leading to more poverty and criminal activity against the native population.

Competition for jobs is a more commonly-voiced concern when refugees arrive in countries where racial or religious differences are less pronounced. Despite the media focus on refugees in the West, more than 85% of refugees actually end up in countries next door to their own. 9 out of 10 of these are low- and middle-income countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Uganda, where perceived racial or religious differences are less pronounced than in the West.

However, competition for jobs is a more commonly-voiced concern, especially by less-skilled native workers. For example, in Jordan, Syrian refugees with training in the construction sector compete directly with natives for their jobs, resulting in a higher unemployment rate among natives.


Using behavioral science for better integration of refugees

How can behavioral science inform better integration of refugees?

The framing of the refugee situation is one method that could produce reasonably positive results.

In the West, individuals hold hostile positions towards refugees when they think in terms of an ingroup or outgroup mentality, such as “Americans” and “French” versus “Muslims” and “Mexicans”. However, when individuals were asked questions like “If you were a refugee fleeing a war-torn country, what would you take with you, limited only to what you can carry yourself?”, they were more likely to empathize with refugees. They were even more likely to take action in support of policies to integrate refugees into host communities, such as writing letters to their political representatives.

Empathy is a powerful motivator for people to act, and this is true not only in the West. In Uganda, more than 90% of the northern population had been displaced for decades by the rebel army group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. This experience made host communities extremely sympathetic to over a million refugees displaced by the recent civil war in South Sudan. Because the native population shared similar experiences, Uganda has one of the most inclusive policies towards refugee integration today. When the opposition to the integration of refugees is due to a perceived difference in identity, framing the issue of refugees in a way that encourages empathy can help to break down these biases.

Framing has also been used in the media to shape views on other areas of development and can provide lessons for how to encourage greater empathy. For instance, lower fertility rates were observed in areas of Brazil where soap operas portrayed small families. In countries where soap operas and dramas are popular, the inclusion of refugees onscreen provides a physical character that viewers can relate to and increase their empathy with refugees in general.

Another possible solution is to have greater positive contact between natives and refugees. More social interaction can help to foster goodwill towards refugees.

For example, an ongoing UN programme in Jordan allows Syrian refugees to mentor natives using their professional training, providing opportunities for constant interaction between individuals of both groups in a congenial setting. The substantive goal of the programme is to provide Syrian refugees with more economic stability while giving Jordanians more job marketability, allaying natives’ concerns about job competition and depressed wages and also breaking down negative perceptions of refugees.

The refugee crisis is one of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time, and there remain significant challenges in dealing with the crisis, such as the recent cuts in funding from donor governments. However, much can still be achieved by understanding the psychological dimension to the obstacles that host communities face when trying to integrate refugees, and designing well-targeted and effective policies to meet them.



Adida, Claire, Adeline Lo, and Melina Platas. 2018. “Perspective Taking Can Promote Short-Term Inclusionary Behavior Toward Syrian Refugees.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(38): 9521-26.

Kende-Robb, Caroline. 2017. “Uganda’s Policy Towards Refugees is the Best in the World. Here’s why.” (29 November 2018).

La Ferrara, Eliana, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea. 2012. “Soap Operas and Fertility: Evidence from Brazil.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4(4): 1-31.

Shankar, Maya, and Lori Foster. 2016. “Behavioural Insights at the United Nations: Achieving Agenda 2030.” United Nations.

Stave, Svein Erik, and Solveig Hillesund. 2015. “Impact of Syrian Refugees on the Jordanian Labour Market.” International Labour Organization.

United Nations High Commission for Refugees. 2018. “Global Trends– Forced Displacement in 2017.” Geneva: UNHCR.

Wike, Richard, Bruce Stokes, and Katie Simmons. 2016. “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs.” Pew Research Center.

2 thoughts on “Behavioural approaches to integrating refugees”

  1. Excellent article. A helpful overview of some of the major challenges facing both refugees and natives of those countries in which they seek refuge, and of potential methods for alleviating stress and promoting cooperation between these groups. Great work.

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