Europeans play favorites when it comes to refugees — and the ones they prefer are highly skilled, vulnerable, and not Muslim, researchers say. People across 15 countries and the political spectrum are more willing to grant asylum to seekers with these traits than others. Politicians who want to shape public opinion and persuade their constituents to accept more refugees could emphasize these factors.
Researchers asked 18,000 eligible voters to look at hypothetical profiles and decide whether to grant asylum, according to a study published today in Science. These 180,000 profiles randomly varied on a few attributes, like country of origin and religion — so, for instance, maybe two profiles would be the same, except one person is from Syria and the other from Iraq. By analyzing which changes made a difference, the researchers figured out what kind of refugees people are willing to accept. The results were very consistent and showed that economic, humanitarian, and religious issues are “fundamental concerns” for Europeans, says study lead author Jens Hainmueller, a professor of political science at Stanford University.
Of course, the public at large is not in charge of deciding who gets asylum. But public opinion affects policy, and so these findings are important as European leaders try to figure out what to do about the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Work on refugees is pretty rare in the scientific literature. Previous research focused on attitudes toward immigration; even the work specifically on refugees looked only at whether people wanted them or not. So this study fills something of a hole in determining what kinds of nuance goes into accepting refugees.
“It is very important to know whether people just want to categorically reject all asylum seekers, or if they have more nuanced views and there are certain types that they might want to accept,” says Hainmueller. “Knowing which sorts of refugees people feel sympathetically toward opens up more leeway for politicians to highlight these contributions and create a positive narrative, which will help them fulfill the binding need of humanitarian obligations.”
Hainmueller’s team chose nine attributes based on factors that real bureaucrats take into account. These were: how consistent the testimony is, sex, country of origin, age, previous occupation, vulnerability, reason for migrating, religion, and language skills. To make the results more representative, they weighted responses to match the demographic of each country. Let’s assume that Germany’s actual population has an equal gender split, but there is a 40 / 60 split in German respondents to the survey. To fix this, the responses are weighted differently to match the real numbers.
People are most eager to accept refugees they think have important skills — a result that we also see when it comes to attitudes toward immigrants. People were 13 percentage points more likely to grant asylum to a doctor rather than someone unemployed. This is true no matter what kind of job the person making the decision has. So it’s not that doctors are afraid to let in more doctors because there might be competition — everyone wants more doctors. This shows that respondents care more about the economic health of the country than about their individual situation.
Humanitarian concerns — like having been tortured, having PTSD, or being handicapped — are also key. Media outlets often highlight the political persecution, war, and violence that refugees are fleeing, and it seems like people do want offer asylum to victims, out of a sense of social justice. Those who were tortured, for example, are more than 11 percentage points more likely to be accepted than those who didn’t have any vulnerabilities. “This is a clear indication that suggests humanitarian values are an attribute worth highlighting in the public debate and one that people will react more positively towards,” says Hainmueller.
And then there’s the anti-Muslim bias. Muslim asylum seekers were 11 percentage points less likely to be accepted than Christian asylum seekers who had similar profiles otherwise. Since people preferred Christian asylum seekers only a little more than agnostic ones, it seems like this finding is more because of anti-Muslim bias than because people especially like Christians. A lot of the refugees in Europe right now are Muslim, so this will be a hard hurdle to overcome.
Overall, Syrian and Ukrainian refugees were most likely to be accepted and ones from Kosovo least likely. But once the three key considerations (humanitarian, economic, and anti-Muslim) are taken into account, the country of origin didn’t really matter. People also frowned upon inconsistent asylum testimony, and those who couldn’t speak the host country’s language.
It’s surprising that the same patterns show up repeatedly because the refugee crisis affects European countries very differently, says Hainmueller. Results didn’t change much whether someone was young or old, better educated or less educated, rich or poor, or even when it comes to their political beliefs. People who identify as right-wing had a stronger bias against Muslims and left-wing voters cared more about humanitarian concerns, but the pattern still held.
In general, everyone wanted to take fewer refugees, even though countries like the Czech Republic already take a lot fewer than countries like Germany. And everyone thought that refugees should be accepted proportionally to the country’s population, which isn’t the current policy. Right now, refugees have to apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in.
These results, though interesting, are still susceptible to the problem all surveys have: the people who respond might not be very representative. The team tried to balance it out to match demographics, but it’s always possible that there are there are many people who ignore surveys but still have strong opinions on refugees, according to Hainmueller.
Next, the team at Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab is figuring out how these survey results compare to actual decisions. Now that we know now “what the public wants,” it’s time to see how these asylum decisions shake out in reality, and what that means for effective government policy.