Do refugees impact voting behavior in the host country? Evidence from Syrian refugee inflows to Turkey


We study how individual political preferences changed in response to the influx of over 3.5 million Syrian refugees to Turkey during 2012–2016. Using a difference-in-differences research design, we compare the political outcomes in geographic areas with high versus low intensities of refugee presence before and after the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. To address the endogeneity of refugees’ location choices, we adopt an instrumental variables approach that relies on (1) historical dispersion of Arabic speakers in Turkish provinces and (2) driving distances between Turkish and Syrian residential areas to predict the flows of refugees across Turkish provinces during the study period. We find strong polarization in attitudes towards refugees between the supporters and opponents of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, regression analyses of monthly survey data suggest that the massive inflow of refugees induced only a modest net drop in support for the AKP. Refugee inflows did not have a significant impact on election outcomes during the study period.

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Fig. 1

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Source: Directorate General of Migration Management,Turkey

Fig. 4

Source: Field Survey, Konda Research and Consultancy, 2016

Fig. 5

Source: Field Survey, Konda Research and Consultancy, 2016

Fig. 6

Source: Field Survey, Konda Research and Consultancy, 2016


  1. 1.

    According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commisionner for Refugees) , in 2016, around half of the global population of refugees was hosted in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan (UNHCR 2016).

  2. 2.

    Turkey has been using Syrian refugees’ resettlement as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the European Union. The EU, in turn, has given six billion euros to Turkey to aid in refugee resettlement.

  3. 3.

    One exception is a study by Steinmayr (2016), who found that the recent Syrian refugee inflows weakened political support for the far-right movement in Austria.

  4. 4.

    See Accessed 18 Dec 2019.

  5. 5.

    See Accessed 18 Dec 2019.

  6. 6.

    See online Appendix Table (A1) for the complete list of datasets, sources, and measurement.

  7. 7.

    Erdoğan (2014) also provides similar estimates for December 2014.

  8. 8.

    For example, Aksaray was a district of Niğde until becoming a province in 1989. We assigned the same percentage of Arabic speaking population to both.

  9. 9.

    Konda did not conduct surveys in some months, which usually correspond to Ramadan. Thus, we do not have data on six of the 60 months between January 2012 and December 2016.

  10. 10.

    Owing to the format in which Konda provides data, it is impossible to create an exclusive category of indecisive and absentee voters for all of the survey months.

  11. 11.

    TurkStat reports only the aggregate number of votes for all independent candidates.

  12. 12.

    Denoted by three categories: rural, urban and metropolitan area.

  13. 13.

    Our instrument differs from a typical shift-share instrument proposed in Altonji and Card (1991) and Card (2001), who use geographic variation in past immigrant settlement patterns to predict future inflows of immigrants. Before the Syrian conflict, migration from Syria to Turkey was negligible. Thus, the Arabic speaking population in Turkey that generates geographic variation in our instrument is not Syrian immigrants, but rather natives of the Turkish Republic, which was founded following the collapse of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire in 1922. We estimated the correlation between the population proportions of Arabic-speaking by province in 1965, and provincial level populations of Arabic-speaker in our monthly 2012–2016 surveys. This exercise yielded a correlation coefficient of 0.66.

  14. 14.

    The adjusted difference controls for respondent’s gender, age, education level, ethnicity, residential area (rural, urban, metropolitan), income group, whether the respondent considers herself religious, and whether she is Sunni Muslim, plus indicator variables for missing observations. Location fixed-effects are captured by dummy variables indentifying each province.

  15. 15.

    Hatay, Mardin, Siirt, Şanlıurfa, Osmaniye, Adana, Mersin, Diyarbakır, Van, Kilis and Gaziantep. Ninety-seven percent of the native Arabic speakers in 1965 lived in those 11 provinces.

  16. 16.

    These data were not collected for the monthly Konda surveys from June 2014 to March 2015.

  17. 17.

    See Staiger and Stock (1997) and Stock and Yogo (2002) for a general discussion of weak instruments.

  18. 18.

    We digitized data using the figures provided by TurkStat from Umumi Nufus Tahriri, Fasikul III, Usuller Kanun ve Talimatnameler Neticelerinin Tahlili, page 32 (, last access - 2019/12/13 19:14:03). Hatay was not part of Turkey until the mid-1930s and we relied on the 1936 share of Arabic speakers in Hatay as reported by French High Commission in 1936 (Brandell 2006). The report provides data on shares of native Arabic speakers for nine provinces that hosted 97.46% of the native Arabic speakers in 1927. Given their negligible populations, we assigned zero to other areas that are not mentioned in the census report.


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We would like to thank KONDA Research and Consultancy for the data support. We received valuable comments from Mathis Wagner, David Canning, Aytuğ Şaşmaz, Stephen O’Connell, Selim Erdem Aytaç, Murat Kırdar, Yulya Truskinovsky, Donald Halstead, and Theodore Joyce. Thanks to seminar and workshop participants at King’s College, Oxford University, Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, Columbia Population Research Center, Galatasaray University, Koç University, Bentley University, Eastern Economics Association, and the Population Association of America for their comments. This study did not receive any funding and the authors declare that there is no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.

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Altındağ, O., Kaushal, N. Do refugees impact voting behavior in the host country? Evidence from Syrian refugee inflows to Turkey. Public Choice (2020).

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  • Refugees
  • Political preferences
  • Voting

JEL Classification

  • D72
  • F22
  • O15