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Europeans See Some Asylum Seekers as More Worthy Than Others

New research suggests neither mass acceptance nor mass rejection of new immigrants from the Middle East.

By Tom Jacobs


A boat loaded with illegal immigrants is seen on June 21, 2005, in Lampedusa, Italy. (Photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Immigration has become a huge political issue in both Europe and the United States, with anti-immigrant sentiment driving the rise of xenophobic candidates and political parties. While it’s easy to attribute this unease to racism, new research suggests attitudes toward new arrivals are complex and nuanced.

A survey of 18,000 citizens of 15 European nations finds acceptance of people looking to emigrate is based on a mix of at least three impulses: one positive (a willingness to help people in particularly severe need), one negative (anti-Muslim bias), and a third that is strictly practical (the question of whether their skills will permit them to play a positive role in the nation’s economy).

“European voters do not treat all asylum seekers equally,” writes a research team led by Stanford University political scientist Kirk Bansak. “Instead, the willingness to accept asylum seeker varies strongly with the specific characteristics of the claimant.”

Participants evaluated a series of asylum applications that randomly included different details, covering such subjects as religion, occupation, and the specific reasons the person fled their home country. The researchers found these variables strongly influenced which people were considered acceptable.

“We find that asylum seekers have a higher probability of being accepted when they are more employable and skilled, have special vulnerabilities, have more consistent asylum claims, and are Christian rather than Muslim,” they write in Science magazine. “These effects are strikingly similar across sociodemographic subgroups and countries.”

Specifically, those “who previously worked in higher-skill occupations” were more likely to be accepted than those with lower-level skills. Doctors were about 13 percentage points more likely to get an OK than unemployed people; for teachers, the figure was 9 percentage points.

“European voters do not treat all asylum seekers equally.”

Language skills also made a big difference in the minds of respondents. Those who do not speak the language were about 12 percent less likely to be accepted compared to those who speak it fluently.

“These results suggest that evaluations of the expected economic contribution, or potential economic burden, of asylum seekers play an important role” in people’s minds, the researchers write.

“Public preferences are also highly sensitive to humanitarian concerns about the deservingness and legitimacy of the asylum request, as well as the severity of the claimants’ vulnerabilities,” they add. Specifically, those who “apply because of fear of political, religious, or ethnic persecution are about 15 percentage points more likely to be accepted, compared with those who migrate to seek better economic opportunities.”

In addition, “those who have been the victim of torture are about 11 percentage points more likely to be accepted than those with no special vulnerabilities.” Clearly, it’s unfair to call immigration skeptics heartless.

On the other hand, many longtime citizens are prejudiced. “Muslim asylum seekers are about 11 percent less likely to be accepted than otherwise similar Christian asylum seekers,” the researchers report. “The fact that Christian asylum seekers are only slightly preferred over agnostic asylum seekers suggests that the penalty mostly reflects a strong anti-Muslim bias, rather than a pro-Christian bias.”

“This penalty is not uniform across respondents,” they add, “but rather doubles in size for those who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum, compared with those on the left.”

These findings “follow a similar pattern across the 15 surveyed countries,” Bansak and his colleagues note. They suggest governments or organizations that wish to encourage a welcoming attitude should “highlight refugees’ deservingness and vulnerability, as well as their economic contributions to their host societies.”

Obviously, it’s easy to appeal to hate and fear. But these results suggest immigrants’ specific stories can also bring out the better side of our nature.