Is fear of change at the root of Europe’s anti-immigrant backlash?

For Syrian refugees, Europe is the land of hopes, dreams, and contradictions. On one hand, the job opportunities, formalized asylum processes, and relatively generous resettlement programs in countries such as Germany and Sweden are much preferred to United Nations refugee camps in Jordan or informal settlements in Lebanon. On the other hand, Europe has the strongest anti-immigration attitudes in the world. Even before the first major influx of Syrians in 2015, Europeans were more likely than people from any other continent to be opposed to immigration, according to Gallup opinion research.

Today, over one million Syrian refugees live in Europe, and 4.4 million live in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. To better understand refugees’ diversity of experience and opinions towards them, we fielded an opinion survey across Europe and the Middle East. We sought to answer:  What drives negative opinions on immigrants and refugees? Are people worried that immigrants will take their jobs, change their culture, or create security problems? Do negative opinions of host country residents affect where Syrian refugees want to migrate? Do Syrians face similar or different problems across destination countries?

Previous research has focused on how demographics explain public opinions. Pew’s Global Attitudes Survey and research using data from the British Social Attitudes Surveys reveal that being male, white, conservative, and uneducated are consistently associated with negative attitudes towards immigration. We explore how environmental factors affect attitudes to immigration.

Getting to know your neighbor

We find that neophobia—the fear of anything new and unfamiliar—is one of the root causes of anti-immigration opinion. Since immigrants are both foreign and unfamiliar, neophobes are often lumped together with xenophobes as people who fear immigrants. The difference is that neophobes overcome their fear through acquaintance, whereas xenophobes hold their fears constant.

In our opinion survey, we find that a host-country resident who knows a refugee (controlling for age, gender, and country) is 15 percentage points more likely to say that her country has a responsibility to help immigrants. The p-value on this coefficient is less than 0.001, which is statistically significant.

Figure 1: Does your country have a responsibility to help refugees? (split by knowing a refugee)

Does your country have a responsibility to help refugees? (split by knowing a refugee)

Likewise, if a respondent does not know a refugee, she is statistically significantly more likely to say that her country is doing too much to help refugees and that she is worried about refugees taking jobs, changing local culture, and creating security problems. One way to address this issue of unfamiliarity is to better fund integration programs for refugees and immigrants; neophobes who interact with refugees and immigrants are more likely to overcome their fear of immigrants (which, as our related research shows, is typically not rational).

Harnessing Facebook power

To ask host community residents and Syrian refugees these questions directly, we designed a novel sampling procedure using Facebook advertising. Facebook’s Ad Manager allows you to advertise directly to almost any group of people, including Syrian refugees. While there is no predefined Syrian refugee segment, you can segment a population by filtering the ad audience to Arabic speakers in a particular country who are expats—whom Facebook defines as people “whose original country of residence is different from the current country/countries selected above”—but who are not Egyptian, Emirati, or Saudi Arabian. We targeted host country residents by filtering on the local language and non-expats.

Example ads to Syrian refugees in Turkey and host community residents in Greece

Example ads to Syrian refugees in Turkey and host community residents in Greece

We launched the Facebook ads with links to opinion surveys on Survey Monkey. The ads, which cost $1,200 in total, targeted refugees and local residents in six countries (Germany, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Sweden) for one week. Our ads reached over half a million Syrian refugees and nearly a million host countries’ residents. Six thousand people (94 percent of whom confirmed they are Syrian refugees) responded to the Syrian refugee opinion survey, and 2,000 people responded to the host country opinion survey. It is important to note that these samples may not be nationally representative. In particular, nearly 75 percent of our respondents are men and the vast majority of Syrian refugee respondents are unemployed. These are the only two obvious biases in either sample, and this sample is representative of Syrian refugee/local resident Facebook users who were motivated by the ads to respond.

What we found

We found that the demographic background and life experiences of Syrian refugees differ across countries. For example, Syrian refugees in Germany and Sweden are much more educated than Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. Likewise, Syrian refugees in Germany and Sweden are more likely to have worked in white-collar professions than Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Employment rates are low for all refugees, and range from a high of 15 percent of refugees in Sweden and Germany to a low of 8 percent in Lebanon.

The majority of refugees in Europe traveled by boat at least part of the way to their destination country. Refugees’ stated and revealed preferences align: Regardless of current host country, refugees rank Germany and Sweden as the top two destinations and Jordan and Lebanon as the bottom two destinations. The only exception is refugees in Jordan, who rank Jordan as the third least-desired destination above Greece and Lebanon.

Host community opinions vary across Europe and the Middle East. Over 85 percent of respondents in all host countries except Greece say Syrian refugees live in their community. Although the overwhelming majority of respondents live in the same community as Syrian refugees, less than half of European respondents know a refugee. In contrast, over 80 percent of respondents in Jordan and Lebanon know a refugee.

Host community fears also vary. The overwhelming majority of respondents in Europe are not worried about Syrians taking their jobs; the opposite is true in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In Germany, Sweden, and Turkey, the vast majority of respondents are worried about Syrians changing their culture, while just under half of Greek respondents and a third of Jordanian and Lebanese respondents shared that concern. The majority of people from all countries are worried about security related to refugees.

This opinion research—which identifies neophobia as a root cause of anti-immigration attitudes—merely scratches the surface of refugee experiences and host community opinions. The full World Bank report covering Syrian refugees and host community residents in Jordan, Lebanon, and the Kurdish Region of Iraq, expected later this year, will paint a broader and more complex picture.