Resettlement location significantly affects integration outcomes of forced migrants

_ Sebastian Braun,  Professor of Economics, University of Bayreuth; Nadja Dwenger, Professor of Economics, University of Hohenheim. 19 May 2020.

The procedures for relocating forced migrants differ considerably across countries, and information about how resettlement locations within host countries affect integration outcomes remains scarce. And yet, the number of forced migrants around the world increased dramatically over the last decade and continues to grow. This column studies displaced Germans after WWII and finds they fared poorly when relocated to agrarian regions with high migrant density. The authors recommend that current resettlement policies avoid directing large concentrations of migrants to a limited selection of rural areas.

The number of forced migrants continues to grow. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than 70 million people were displaced at the end of 2018, up from 43.3 million at the beginning of the decade (UNHCR 2010, 2019). This substantial increase has raised concerns about the ability of receiving regions to integrate forced migrants into their labour markets. Recent evidence for high-income countries suggests that forced migrants experience worse labour market outcomes than other groups of migrants (Brell et al. 2020, Fasani et al. 2018).

Assigning forced migrants to locations within a host country is one of the earliest policy decisions during relocation and has potentially far-reaching consequences for the economic integration of the displaced (Bansak et al. 2018). However, our knowledge about the effect of resettlement location on integration outcomes remains limited. Important questions that await conclusive answers include: Does the presence of other forced migrants in receiving regions accelerate or hinder the integration process? How does the economic structure of receiving regions shape integration outcomes? Does it matter whether forced migrants are resettled to culturally close or distant regions?

In recent research (Braun and Dwenger forthcoming), we study these questions for one of the largest forced population movements in history, the mass arrival of eight million displaced Germans in West Germany after WWII. We show that the resettlement location in West Germany was key for integration outcomes of displaced Germans, the so-called expellees (Heimatvertriebene).

Historical setting

Most of the expellees came from the former Eastern territories of Germany, i.e. those provinces east of today’s German-Polish border that Germany ceded after WWI or II (see Figure 1). These provinces had been part of Germany or Prussia for decades, if not centuries. Expellees and native West Germans not only spoke the same language, albeit with different dialects, but were also similar in their socio-demographic characteristics.

Figure 1 Germany’s territorial losses 1919-45 and its division in 1945

Sources: Braun and Dwenger (forthcoming)1; Base map: MPIDR (2011)

One important feature of our historical setting is that authorities did not account for local integration prospects when relocating expellees. In the chaotic post-war circumstances, the authorities were overwhelmed by the pace and size of the expellee inflow (Nellner 1959). After their arrival, expellees could not just sort into regions with better integration prospects, as moving restrictions remained in place until 1949. This allows us to abstract from many of the confounding factors that usually plague analyses of the effect of resettlement location on integration outcomes.

Resettlement location and labour market integration

Upon their arrival, expellees encountered very different local conditions. West German counties, the unit of our analysis, differed substantially in the size of the expellee inflow, the sectoral employment structure of the local economy, and the religious composition of the native population. The population share of expellees, for instance, ranged from 1.8% to 44.1% in 1950 (see Figure 2). These striking regional differences in expellee inflows were largely the result of the undirected flight of Germans during the last stages of WWII.

Figure 2 Population share of expellees, September 1950

Source: Braun and Dwenger (forthcoming)i, based on data from the population and occupation census of September 1950.

At the same time, labour market outcomes of expellees also differed substantially across West German counties. The 1950 labour-force-to-population rate of expellees, for instance, ranged from more than 50% in the west to less than 37% in the north and south-east of West Germany. Our analysis studies whether these large differences in integration outcomes can be traced back to different socio-economic conditions at resettlement location.

We show that two factors—the local population share of expellees and the employment share in agriculture—account for more than 60% of the regional variation in expellees’ labour force participation rates. Figure 3 illustrates that across West German counties, the labour force participation rate of expellees decreases significantly and continuously with their local population share. This negative relationship holds after controlling for remaining potential confounders, such as war destructions or distance to the inner-German border. The result supports the hypothesis that high expellee inflows impeded local economic integration by intensifying competition in the labour market (Connor 2007). We also find that expellees were less attached to the labour market when relocated to agrarian rather than industrialised counties. This is in line with the hypothesis that rural economies had little capacity to productively absorb the inflow of expellees (Pfeil 1958).

Figure 3 The effect of population shares of forced migrants on their labour force participation

Source: Braun and Dwenger (forthcoming)i, based on data from the population and occupation census of September 1950.

Notes: This figure displays the impact of the expellee share on the labour force participation rate of expellees. The regression line is from a semiparametric regression, which includes various controls (for details see Braun and Dwenger, forthcoming). Each dot corresponds to a West German county.

Resettlement location and social integration

High inflows of expellees and a large agrarian base not only impeded labour market integration, but also decreased intermarriage rates between expellees and natives, and increased the vote share of parties campaigning on an outspoken anti-expellee stance. Furthermore, our empirical analysis suggests that religious differences—between Catholic expellees and Protestant West Germans or vice versa—also reduced intermarriages and increased the votes for anti-expellee parties. This result is consistent with previous qualitative case studies: In the predominantly Protestant state of Lower Saxony, for instance, Protestant expellees were more readily accepted than Catholic expellees (e.g. Schulze 2002).

Policy implications

Taken together, our paper shows that the initial resettlement location was key to the integration of expellees in West Germany. From a policy perspective, our results suggest that resettlement policies should prevent a high concentration of migrants in just a few locations within the receiving country. This recommendation seems at odds with earlier findings that point to positive effects of ethnic concentration on labour market outcomes of refugees (Brell et al. 2020). One potential explanation for the difference in our findings is that in our setting, the information value of migrant networks is likely to be small. Migrants all arrived at once and could thus not benefit from the local expertise of earlier migrant cohorts. Consequently, higher migrant concentration only heightened competition among expellees, slowing their labour market integration.

Our findings also suggest that integrating forced migrants is more difficult in agrarian regions. Policies that aim at fostering rural revival by predominantly assigning refugees to rural areas are unlikely to be successful. Precisely because rural areas offer poorer integration prospects, forced migrants are likely to move on to urban areas once they are allowed to do so. This is exactly what happened in West Germany in the 1950s: Expellees moved from the agrarian regions in the North of Germany to the industrial centres in the West. This intra-German movement of expellees is likely to have significantly accelerated the integration process. Policies that restrict the movement of forced migrants are thus potentially harmful for integration, as they prevent refugees from moving to regions with better labour market conditions.


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Braun, S T and N Dwenger (forthcoming), “Settlement Location Shapes the Integration of Forced Migrants: Evidence from Post-war Germany”, Explorations in Economic History. Figures reprinted with permission from Elsevier.

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1 Reprinted from Explorations in Economic History, Sebastian Braun and Nadja Dwenger, “Settlement Location Shapes the Integration of Forced Migrants: Evidence from Post-war Germany”, with permission from Elsevier.


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