Some good news about public attitudes to refugees

By Annie Malknecht and Gideon Maltz
as published in NewsDeeply on May 22, 2017

Despite the tumult of 2016, public support for refugees has not plunged in the past year, say Gideon Maltz and Annie Malknect of the Tent Foundation. Founded by Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, the foundation has surveyed attitudes toward refugees in 12 countries.

As our new polling data, looking at public views on refugees in 12 countries, came in this year, our biggest question was how much support for refugees had eroded during the tumult of 2016 – from terrorist attacks in France, Germany and Turkey to heated political campaigns in the U.S. and U.K.

We were surprised to find that views on a wide range of refugee issues were virtually unchanged since the previous year, suggesting a remarkable resilience in public support for refugees, even amid security and economic concerns.

Our organization, the Tent Foundation, was founded in 2015 to improve the lives and livelihoods of the forcibly displaced around the globe. We launched the first Tent Tracker last year, with the goal of understanding better the public’s views toward the global refugee crisis, and providing a resource for NGOs and advocates seeking to win more hearts and minds around the world.

This year, our researchers surveyed more than 12,000 people in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Sweden, Turkey, U.K. and the U.S. in December 2016 and January 2017.

Here are five key takeaways from this research:

Support for Refugee Resettlement Remains Strong

An overwhelming majority of respondents around the world – almost 3 in 4 – expressed support for admitting refugees into their countries, a level that is unchanged since a year ago, despite persistent concerns around terrorism and the tendency of the media to portray refugees as threatening.

Even in the U.S., where refugees were often the subject of very heated political debate over the past year, more than 2 in 3 respondents still believe their country should welcome refugees.

Not only that, but a majority of Americans said they had become more sympathetic to the plight of refugees over the intervening months – a rate higher than many other countries included in the poll. American support for refugees today compares very favorably to support for resettling other refugee populations in the past.

Stark Differences Between Conservatives and Liberals

Views on refugees correlated highly with political outlooks. On seemingly factual questions about economics and security, we found gaping divides between those who self-identified as conservative and liberal.

Across almost all the countries we surveyed, the typical conservative sees refugees as an economic burden and a security threat – and the typical liberal does not. In Italy, for example, there was a 41 percent difference between conservatives and liberals as to whether refugees are an economic burden and 45 percent difference on whether they represent a direct security threat. We saw similar numbers in Germany, Sweden, the United States and elsewhere.

Security Concerns Are Paramount

When asked to identify concerns about resettling refugees, people cited economic issues as often as security ones. Yet when pressed, it is clear that security concerns were driving negative shifts in attitude, continuing a pattern from our report last year. Among respondents who had become less sympathetic to refugees over the past year, more than twice as many cited security concerns (54 percent) as economic cost (22 percent). In Germany, the margin is 7 to 1.

There also appears to be little disagreement over whether refugees pose a potential security risk: 9 out of 10 people believed that they do. Instead, respondents were evenly divided between those who think that higher refugee admissions created greater security risk, and those who expressed confidence that the risk can be managed effectively.

But Economic Concerns Must Also Be Addressed

People were divided about the economic impact of refugees. Overall, a narrow majority (53 percent – up two points from last year) believed that refugees are a burden on their economies. Slim majorities in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the U.K. and Sweden said that refugees can positively contribute to, or benefit, the economy.

As an empirical matter, there’s mounting evidence that refugee resettlement has a positive economic effect – for example this study commissioned by the Tent Foundation. The fact that a majority of respondents believe otherwise likely reflects the fact that the costs of resettlement – such as direct government spending – are immediate and visible, while the economic dividends, driven by fiscal stimulus, an increased consumer base and labor specialization, are indirect and longer term.

Disapproval of Religious Tests

Two in three people surveyed said that refugees should be helped equally, regardless of their religion – a rise of almost 10 percentage points since last year. Many took this position despite holding unfavorable views of Islam – almost half of respondents said that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage extremism.

In the U.S., more than 3 in 5 respondents support equal treatment for refugees of different faiths. Even among self-identified conservatives in the U.S., 45 percent shared this view, while 20 percent said that Christian refugees should receive priority and 14 percent said that priority should be given generally to groups that have faced religious persecution.

On balance, there is considerably more cause for cheer than alarm for refugee advocates in the survey findings.

Even as many respondents are concerned about economic and security risks, many continue to support refugee resettlement. Half of those who think that refugees are an economic burden, as well as half of those who think that more refugees lead to a greater security risk, still support refugee resettlement in their country.

Even in a highly polarized political environment, there is one important point of relative convergence: conservatives in most countries – with the exception of Canada, Hungary and Serbia – agree with liberals that that their country has some responsibility to accept refugees.

This latent sympathy for refugees, even among those who are skeptical, provides an opening for those who work to help refugees.

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