THOUSANDS OF CIVILIANS have fled Afghanistan this year to escape the Taliban. By the end of the year, the United Nations reckons, the exodus of refugees in the region could reach half a million. Many will seek sanctuary in neighbouring Pakistan, already home to an estimated 1.4m Afghan refugees. But the government in Islamabad has insisted that it cannot welcome any more, warning that a flood of new migrants would contribute to instability. Since the 9/11 attacks it has sought to paint Afghan exiles as instigators of conflict and refugee camps as sanctuaries for terrorists.

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But research on the link between refugees and civil conflict suggests that such fears are overblown. In a recent paper, Yang-Yang Zhou of the University of British Columbia and Andrew Shaver of the University of California, Merced analysed the locations of 2,511 refugee sites in 70 countries from 1990 to 2018 to determine whether areas that hosted refugee communities experienced more armed civil conflict than those that did not (see map). After controlling for factors including population size, GDP and distance from a country’s capital, they found that the presence of refugee settlements did not increase the probability of conflict. In fact, under certain circumstances, the presence of refugees made conflict less likely.

It helps if refugees are clustered together. The authors found that when refugee communities are geographically concentrated, rather than sprawling, conflicts were less likely to occur. This might be because states and humanitarian agencies are better able to support refugees when they are in one place and that the presence of refugees increases economic activity, both of which have spillover effects for those who live nearby. When the authors analysed global satellite data of night-time lights, a proxy for economic activity, they found evidence that places that hosted a concentration of refugees were indeed more developed.

Such evidence will be cold comfort to leaders in the region, many of whom blame refugees for a host of problems, from higher crime to unemployment rates. In Turkey, home to the largest refugee population in the world, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, recently insisted that “the real survival problem of our country is the flood of refugees”.