23 February 2024

Why Host Countries Differ on Refugee Rights

In his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science, Hirotaka Fujibayashi both theorises and empirically shows why refugee-hosting policies diverge across countries. As he explains in this interview, he substantiates his arguments with wide-ranging evidence thrusting the Global South countries into the spotlight.

Where does your interest in refugee policy and refugee rights come from? 

My concrete interest in refugee and forced migration emerged when I was an undergraduate student in law and political science. Since then, I have had a good range of fieldwork experiences, including one visit to a refugee camp in eastern Nepal and multiple field trips to various (re)settlement areas in Australia, Asia, and the Middle East. All these experiences, alongside my academic exploration as a student of comparative politics, IR, and a bit of refugee and (im)migration laws, have come together to formulate my core research interests.

Can you describe your thesis questions? 

My doctoral research started with a growingly known observation that host countries regulate the rights of refugees in many different ways. From a humanitarian (and arguably also legal) standpoint, refugees should receive equal rights and treatment irrespective of where or to which country they move. The international norms built around the 1951 Geneva Convention are extremely clear on this point. All too often, however, the norms and humanitarian principles clash with the sovereign duties every state owes to protect its borders, citizens, and their welfare on the ground. 
An important implication here is that – although normatively unpleasing – refugee protection is, in and of itself, politics and each state regulates the rights of refugees differently. This point interests me in exploring the following research questions: 

  • Why do some states restrict the rights of refugees more severely than others? 
  • Why can some countries offer a more welcoming or inclusive host environment for refugees while others cannot? 

What is your methodology to address these questions? 

I first develop a theoretical framework from a conventional political economy perspective and by taking inspiration from Martin Ruhs’s Price of Rights thesis in the immigration policy literature. Put simply, I argue that host countries find it challenging to increase (1) the number of refugees they admit and (2) the post-entry rights they give to refugees at the same time. I test this argument and empirical implications using original data and a multimethod approach, specifically moving from large-N cross-national analyses on 70 major low- and middle-income host counties (from 2004 to 2016) to small-N comparative case studies on three Middle Eastern countries: Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. 

What are your major findings? 

A keystone of my doctoral work was developing new hand-coded data on the so-called de facto (rather than mere de jure) provision of refugee rights in the 70 refugee-hosting countries. While recent research has rapidly progressed to develop a range of similar quantitative indicators, to my knowledge, the database I have constructed is the first to systematically measure multiple countries’ practical performance in the provision of basic socio-economic rights to refugees. I leveraged these data to offer a series of descriptive and empirical findings throughout my PhD thesis. 

To summarise my findings, I show that, ceteris paribus, the number of refugees a state hosts has a significantly negative effect on the extent of the de facto socio-economic rights refugees can enjoy in that country. This gives baseline support to my argument, which I colloquially label the “number-vs-rights” trade-off. 

On the other hand, I also find that this negative relationship (or trade-off) can be weakened in host countries where a particular ethnic group exerts predominant control over the country’s politics and the majority of refugees are the co-ethnics of the most politically empowered ethnic group. This finding is nicely linked up with previous research offered by Lamis Abdelaaty and other leading scholars in refugee and forced migration. 

As a second possible moderating channel, I also show that the trade-off may intensify as a host country’s aid dependency increases, while it can be mitigated if a host country’s economy is more trade-open and integrated into the global market. While recent research has highlighted host countries’ interests in attracting economic resources from abroad, my findings offer new empirical insights into this line of debate. 

I further some of these findings through the in-depth case studies of Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, based primarily on the information I gathered through my fieldwork interviews and archival research. 

What are you doing now? 

Presently, I am a Max Weber postdoctoral fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute (EUI) in Italy. At EUI, I am mainly working on my ongoing book project, growing out of my PhD thesis, and turning several thesis chapters into articles for publication. I also continue to develop the database I constructed during my doctoral research and have embarked on several new projects. 

I am truly enjoying my postdoctoral life at EUI, and above anything else, it’s great to have someone like Martin Ruhs – whose work has been so inspiring and influential to me over many years – as my mentor. My long-term career goal is to continue to be involved in and contribute to scholarly research on international migration and refugees as a comparative political scientist.

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Hirotaka Fujibayashi defended his PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science on 14 December 2023. Assistant Professor Christiana Parreira presided over the committee, which included Professor Cédric Dupont, Thesis Director, and Professor Sandra Lavenex, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Geneva.

Citation of the PhD thesis: 
Fujibayashi, Hirotaka. “Why Host States Restrict Refugee Rights: A Comparative Inquiry into Refugee and Asylum Policies.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.

An abstract of the PhD thesis is available on this page of the Geneva Graduate Institute’s repository. As the thesis itself is embargoed until December 2026, interested readers should contact Dr Fujibayashi at for access.

Banner image by Hirotaka Fujibayashi showing a map of refugee rights scores across developing regions in 2016.
Interview by Nathalie tanner, Research Office.