Kenneth E. Miller Ph.D.

The Refugee Experience


Are Refugees a Threat to Americans?

Cognitive bias, misinformation, and fear mongering have led to unfounded fears.

Posted Feb 20, 2017

Thomas Koch/Shutterstock, Inc.
Source: Thomas Koch/Shutterstock, Inc.

Here's a sampling of things more likely to kill Americans than refugees: (1) white supremacists and right wing extremists, who account for the vast majority of all terrorist attacks in the US; (2) second hand smoke (41,000 deaths annually); (3) alcohol-related car crashes (10,000 deaths annually); (4) gunshot (33,000 deaths annually); (5) husbands/male partners (1,600 deaths annually); (6) medical errors (250,000 deaths annually); (7) overdose or other unintentional poisoning (22,000 deaths annually), (8) child abuse or neglect (1,600 deaths annually); and (9) bicycle accidents (over 800 deaths annually). As noted in the Washington Post, in 2016 Americans were more likely to be shot by a toddler with a gun than by a refugee. None of the 9/11 terrorists were refugees, nor were the killers in the Orlando nightclub and Boston Marathon massacres. Refugees, like immigrants more generally, also have consistently lower rates of non-terrorism related crime than native born Americans.

The risk of being killed in the US in a terrorist attack by a refugee, in any given year between 1975-2017, was approximately 1 in 3.8 billion.

Despite these facts, fear of refugees, and of Muslim refugees in particular, remains high among Americans. There is also considerable support for Donald Trump’s advocacy of “extreme vetting”, though in fact the vetting process was already extremely thorough before Trump took office, and as the crime statistics show, quite effective. Why then does this fear of refugees persist?  A combination of factors, some political and others psychological, offers some useful insights.

The failure to distinguish between asylum seekers and refugees

Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has written eloquently about the critical distinction between asylum seekers and refugees, terms that are often used interchangeably but mean something quite different when seeking refugee in the United States. Asylum seekers make their way to the US and then request asylum, which if granted affords the right to stay in the country legally based on a well-founded fear of violence or persecution in their homeland. To seek asylum in the US, therefore, one first has to get there. A precarious boat ride from the shores of Libya to the coast of Italy or Greece is one thing; a journey from the Middle East to America, which entails crossing at least one sea, one continent, and one ocean, is quite another. It’s not impossible, by any means; Syrians do make their way to the US, and in 2013, 811 Syrians were granted asylum. However, the logistical challenges in getting to the US mean that asylum seekers are not flocking en masse to America from anywhere in the predominantly Muslim world.

Refugees, in contrast, are granted the right to come to the US only after applying for refugee status from abroad, an extremely rigorous process that typically lasts between 18 months and two years, and entails in-depth background checks by multiple federal agencies. By the time Syrians, Afghans, or Iraqis are granted refugee status and permitted to the come to the US, they have already been through what can reasonably be called “extreme vetting.”

The availability heuristic and the saliency bias

Research has shown that we are likely to regard highly impactful events as being more common than they actually are (they are readily available to memory, thus the "availability heuristic"). I recall boarding a plane years ago in Boston and looking out the window at the back half of a DC10 jet sticking out of the harbor. It had broken off during a failed landing and was still awaiting removal. My first reaction was a wave of dread. In that moment, I completely forgot that air travel is the safest form of transport; the probability of dying in a plane crash is extremely low, estimated at roughly 1 in 5 million (the risk of dying in a car crash is nearly 1,000 times greater). To the topic at hand, terrorist events committed by radical Islamists do occur in the US, they are emotionally impactful, and are thus readily available to memory; however, they happen far less often than many people assume, accounting for just one tenth of one percent of all murders committed in the US since 2001. And to the point of this essay, none of these attacks have been committed by Muslim refugees. 

We also tend to focus narrowly on subjectively striking aspects of people or events while disregarding other important details (the saliency bias). Consider the brutal terrorist attack in Orlando in 2016, in which 49 people were killed and 53 wounded. We are likely to recall accurately that the attack was committed by a man with a foreign name who pledged his loyalty to ISIS. We are less likely, however, to remember that the killer was actually an American (he was born in New York City), and was therefore neither a refugee nor a foreigner. A ban on refugees, had it been in place, would not have prevented the Orlando atrocity.  

Is there legitimate reason to fear Islamic extremism in the US? Certainly. Extremism of any sort represents a serious threat, whether it‘s rooted in a particular interpretation of Islam or in the white supremacy that led Dylan Roof to murder nine innocent people in a church in Charleston. Is there, however, good reason to fear Muslim refugees, and Syrian refugees in particular? Is there any empirical evidence that a ban on refugees from predominantly Muslim countries will keep us safer? The data overwhelmingly suggest that the answer to both questions is no. Unfortunately, that evidence is unlikely to change anyone’s mind, because of a very different sort of cognitive bias.

The confirmation bias and the resistance of old beliefs to new facts

There is a tendency to seek out evidence which confirms those beliefs we already hold, while discounting or ignoring data that might cause us to question our deeply held beliefs or values. A related line of research, discussed eloquently by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, has shown that even when confronted with new facts that contradict our long-held beliefs, we seldom alter those beliefs.  So if we already believe that Middle Eastern refugees are a threat to our security, or that foreigners may endanger the American way of life, we are likely to discount evidence to the contrary.  The fact that refugees have not committed any terrorist attacks on US soil in this century, or that the crime rate among refugees is markedly lower than that of native-born Americans, is unlikely to change the views of those who believe that Muslim refugees are dangerous and should either be more carefully vetted or banned altogether from entering the country. It doesn’t help that we live in “information bubbles”, tuning in to news sources that present evidence consistent with our worldviews, or that social media such as Facebook select posts for us that are likely to reinforce what we already believe.


Donald Trump was elected in no small part because of his promise to initiate a practice of “extreme vetting” of refugees, despite the reality that our current system of vetting is already extremely rigorous. He’s remarkably skilled at generating fear by exploiting the biases I discussed earlier, then offering solutions (e.g., "extreme vetting") meant to allay that fear. He has depicted Germany as “crime ridden” because of the high number of asylum-seekers it has allowed in (more than a million in 2015), though in fact Germany’s crime rate is significantly lower than America’s despite its more generous response to Syrians and others seeking refuge from war. He hints at frightening images of Muslim refugees coming to the US intent on committing acts of terror, ignoring the data on the actual degree of threat posed by refugees. He plays skillfully on fears many already hold from pre-existing beliefs and news accounts of terrorist incidents in the US and abroad. For example, after the Orlando massacre, he warned with absolutely no evidence that there were thousands of likeminded shooters in the US that the government was simply ignoring. Like other extreme nationalists, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, he also fails to distinguish between refugees, asylum seekers, and economic migrants, painting all foreigners from predominantly Muslim nations as threats to our safety.

Can anything be done?

The human brain has the remarkable capacity to consider multiple sources of information in determining how realistic a potential threat actually is. Under conditions of high fear, however, we are less likely to engage in a thorough process of risk assessment, and the cognitive biases discussed above are more likely to take over.  Pre-existing biases, powerful media imagery, and the frightening statements of influential leaders can heighten our fear and lead us to overestimate danger where it is in fact low.

What is most urgently needed, I suggest, is a more nuanced, less polarizing dialogue among those holding different views of refugees. Although xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy account for some of the anti-refugee sentiment, it is unhelpful to paint all those who fear refugees with that broad stroke. Polarization and demonization simply don’t get us anywhere. They discount people’s fear and shut down any possibility of dialogue. If we want people to consider the evidence that refugees, including Syrians and others from largely Muslim countries, do not pose a threat to our safety, we need to listen to their concerns, acknowledge that violent extremism by any group is something to be worried about, and share the facts about refugees in ways that respectfully challenge common misperceptions. Stories of individual refugees who have made meaningful contributions to American society can be more impactful than crime statistics alone. And greater coverage depicting the everyday lives of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi refugees in the US and the challenges they have overcome may help to counter the misleading narrative of Muslim refugees as a threat to our nation.

A final note about distinguishing between refugees and asylum seekers: it may seem I am suggesting that asylum seekers pose a significantly greater threat to their host society than refugees. It's true that asylum seekers' claims are only vetted after they have already arrived in the country where their applications are considered. It's also true ISIS has made clear its intention to send terrorists into Europe and elsewhere in the guise of asylum seekers. Unquestionably, thorough screening of asylum seekers is an essential security measure for any nation. And indeed, the asylum application process in the US is often grueling, can take from months to years, and may involve prolonged detention while a decision is pending. That's probably why the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack by an asylum seeker in the US is about 1 in 1.2 billion. Moreover, the data thus far suggest that crime by asylum seekers is consistently lower than that of the native born in their host societies, and that their participation in acts of terrorism is extremely rare (the terrorist attacks that have rocked France and Belgium were primarily the work of French and Belgian nationals). It's important to acknowledge the fear caused by the 2016 New Years Eve sexual assaults in Germany, in which several male asylum seekers were implicated (the majority of assailants appear to have been migrants from northern Africa). The question is whether such an incident is best addressed through greater security measures while continuing to offer asylum after careful screening, or through the self-protective closure of borders to all those desperately in need of safe haven.