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Social Networks, Immigration Policies, and Jewish Emigration from Nazi Germany

When facing persecution and conflict, how do individuals decide to emigrate?

A study by Seyhun Sakalli and co-authors, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (May 2023), investigates this question, focusing on the role of social networks and immigration policies in the emigration decisions of Jews in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1941.

Using an individual-level dataset known as the Resident List, the authors reconstructed social networks within the Jewish community based on birth location and age cohort. Their analysis reveals that peers shared information about persecution, and a person was more likely to emigrate after their peers were detained by Nazi forces. This effect was stronger for individuals who previously felt relatively safe.

The researchers also studied the role of diaspora and exodus effects in the decision to flee Germany. Diaspora effects refer to the facilitation of outmigration by a larger Jewish diaspora in the destination country, while exodus effects capture the influence of peers' migration on an individual's willingness to leave due to shrinking business opportunities and perceived danger. Both effects played a significant role in the emigration decisions of Jews in the 1930s.

Furthermore, the study examines the impact of immigration policies in destination countries on Jewish emigration from Germany. At the time, most countries imposed strict immigration restrictions, such as visas, quotas, and work restrictions. By simulating alternative policies, the authors found that a unilateral border opening could have significantly increased the total number of migrants leaving Germany due to peer effects. For instance, allowing 5,000 more migrants into the U.S. in 1936 would have increased total outmigration until 1941 by about 10,000 migrants.

The authors also assessed the potential impact of financial assistance and the removal of work restrictions for refugees. They found that a 50 per cent subsidy on ticket prices to all overseas destinations after 1936 would have increased outmigration by 12 per cent, while removing work restrictions in recipient countries would have led to a 20 per cent increase in Jewish migration out of Germany.

Although the study focuses on a historical episode, its findings have important implications for modern refugee crises. The role of social networks and peer effects in migration decisions can lead to unexpected and large refugee movements. Policymakers should consider these multiplicative effects when designing policies related to forced migration and international cooperation.

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Seyhun Sakalli

Seyhun Sakalli

Lecturer in Economics

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