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Here’s what motivates people to host refugees

Empathy is what drives people to host the displaced, our study found.

Refugees carry their belonging in DR Congo, in a 2008 photo.
Families flee the sound of gunfire near Goma, DRC in 2008 (cc) Julien Harneis.

On June 20, World Refugee Day, people around the globe remember those who have had to flee their homes because of violent conflict or natural calamities. Conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, and elsewhere have pushed the number of displaced people to an all-time high. In 2022 – the most recent year for which there are estimates – 108 million people, or 1 in every 74 individuals worldwide, were living in forced displacement. Around 40 million refugees or asylum seekers crossed international borders. But about 63 million internally displaced people – IDPs, for short – remained within the borders of their countries. 

Contrary to what we might imagine when hearing politicians in Western countries talk about immigration, most displaced people never make it to the United States or Europe. Instead, low- and middle-income countries host 76% of the world’s refugees. Another misperception is that IDPs are mostly accommodated in refugee camps. In fact, the majority of those displaced find refuge in regular towns and villages, often with host families. 

International organizations and governments encourage grassroots initiatives to provide displaced people with food, shelter, and jobs. There are examples of ordinary citizens helping in the United States, Mexico, Afghanistan, Germany, Libya, and elsewhere. In the past two years, Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion have been accommodated in private homes across the European Union and in the United Kingdom, where governments have set up online platforms to match refugees with homeowners. 

Our recently published article studies the role of empathy in hosting internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Violent conflict has been endemic to parts of the DRC for decades, and the country is home to the third-largest population of IDPs globally, with 6.7 million, about 6% of the population, in need of refuge. As in other contexts, host families commonly provide that refuge. 

Here’s how we did our research

Our interest in the role of empathy was sparked by recent studies in Liberia and Syria, which found that individuals who had experienced violence became more likely to host the forcibly displaced. Those studies did not measure empathy directly, but found that past experience of violence resulted in higher empathy for the displaced. In our work, we measure empathy via a modified instrument used in social psychology, the Basic Empathy Scale.

This scale measures empathy through a series of simple questions that get at how well people understand and share the feelings of others. It includes statements like “After being with a friend who is sad about something, I also feel sad,” or “I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me.” Respondents rate how much they agree with these statements.

One of the challenges of studying any decision to help others in need is that the motives for helping are usually explored after the act itself has taken place. This makes it difficult to identify the causes of a helping act because it might alter the dispositional state of the person who is helping. To get around this problem, we measured the characteristics of potential hosts prior to the arrival of the forcibly displaced. In 2019, we identified a specific area that was likely to receive an influx of displaced people in subsequent months. We then interviewed all 1,504 households in 15 villages in that region.

Another challenge in measuring helping behavior is that in surveys people might be tempted to over-report how much they help others in an effort to make themselves look better. To mitigate against this, we asked village chiefs to record which households started hosting. All in all, over the course of the study’s ten-month duration, almost a quarter (24%) of the households started hosting IDPs. 

So what explains hosting behavior? 

Our results show that empathy is the most important correlate of opening one’s doors to the forcibly displaced. We found that the most empathetic person in our sample was 20 percentage points more likely to host than the least empathetic. Semi-structured interviews with 150 randomly selected households confirmed this result. Most hosts said they were motivated by compassion, noting that they themselves had experienced displacement or could easily imagine their household being displaced. 

One host we interviewed noted that “[the IDPs] were in difficulty, and I have gone through a similar situation.” Another host, imagining what it might be like to be displaced, told us, “I hosted them because I could find myself in the same situation and, in that case, I would need to rely on other people to receive me in their home.” 

Consistent with the “empathy born of violence” hypothesis, we also found that those with greater exposure to violence in the past tended to have higher levels of empathy. Some hosts also mentioned this as a reason for hosting: e.g., “I too am like a displaced person, given that in our territory there has always been unrest since 1994.”

Among other factors that influenced the decision to host were the household’s sense of security, and strength of connections to local authorities. Being of the same ethnicity as the IDP, or being wealthy or highly religious, did not appear to influence the hosting decision at all. Follow-up interviews also confirmed that shared ethnicity was not relevant when initiating a hosting relationship – a surprising finding given that scholars argue that ethnicity is an important determinant of cooperation, and often mentioned ethnicity as an important element in Congolese violence. 

Can hosting IDPs be encouraged?

Is there a way to heighten empathy and elicit greater willingness to host? Research has shown that getting Americans and Europeans to imagine what it would be like to have to flee their home led to more welcoming attitudes toward migrants. We attempted a similar perspective-taking exercise in the context of hosting decisions in the DRC. We asked survey respondents to describe where they might go and what they would take with them if forced to leave home.

This survey intervention, administered at the outset of the project and well before any IDPs had arrived, did not increase hosting down the line. This might be because a standard perspective-taking intervention is too weak to create lasting effects. Or perhaps many Congolese are already all too aware of the potential need to flee at short notice and, therefore, are not susceptible to this type of intervention. If that’s the case, extreme acts of helping like hosting might be difficult to encourage in the longer term in populations where violence is relatively commonplace. 

Leonid Peisakhin is an associate professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi. He works on political identities, legacies of conflict, and post-conflict reconciliation.

Nik Stoop is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp. He explores policy-relevant questions in sustainable development, focusing on natural resources, green energy, health and migration.

Peter van der Windt is an associate professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi. He studies local governance and displacement in the context of developing countries.