6 Reasons People Hate Refugees
Refugees may be perceived as threatening for different reasons.
Posted Feb 21, 2020
With the recent mass shooting in Germany, some people are again asking why anybody would hate refugees and aliens (i.e. foreigners). If you are an immigrant, particularly a recent refugee or asylum seeker, you may have already asked this question many times after having experienced prejudice, racism, and discrimination.
If you are among those who hate refugees, do you know why you feel this way? Is it a vague feeling of hostility or does it stem from specific unpleasant experiences or future worries? For instance, do you worry about foreigners spreading diseases, committing violence, or taking away jobs and depressing wages?
In this post, I discuss new research by Helen Landmann and colleagues in Germany, which has examined the reasons people use to justify anti-refugee hostility. The study’s findings are published in the December 2019 issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology.1
Why do we find immigrants threatening?
Whether the threat is true or imagined, immigrants might be perceived as threatening in a number of ways.
Refugees, for instance, pose an economic threat because they need jobs, low-cost housing, access to health care, etc. In addition, they pose a health threat because some refugees come from countries with comparably higher rates of certain diseases (e.g., tuberculosis, AIDS). Furthermore, immigrants pose an identity threat, especially if they have a “different cultural identity, religious identity, and value system than members of the host community.” Perceptions of threat, according to previous research, “are one of the most important predictors of attitudes and prejudice toward immigrants and other outgroups”(p. 82).2
Six reasons for hostility toward refugees
Landmann and colleagues in Germany conducted a series of four related studies to examine hostility toward refugees.
In the first of these investigations, they used a sample of 55 male and 121 female psychology students (average age of 32 years). The participants were initially asked how many refugees Germany could host per year and then asked what would happen if this number was exceeded. Six threat types emerged from the analysis of the responses:1
- Symbolic threat (the migrants’ culture and religion being threatening to one’s way of life)
- Realistic threat (job availability and pay)
- Safety threat (immigrants committing crimes)
- Social functioning threat (the creation of ghettos)
- Prejudice threat (the potential rise of racist and right-wing views)
- Altruistic threat (the host nation failing to provide needed support for refugees)
While the first three threats may be considered direct threats, the other three are extended threats. For example, a person who fears he might catch a deadly disease from refugees is reacting to a direct threat, but a person who fears negative changes in politics of the country, such as a significant increase in popular support for extremist right-wing and far-right parties, is reacting to an indirect or extended threat.
Examining these six threat types, researchers tried to determine if only one or two of them might explain hostility toward refugees just as well or even better than all six factors combined. To answer this question, they conducted a second study using a sample of 289 female and 118 male students (average age of 32 years). They concluded that the six threat types explained the data better than one general threat factor or two factors (i.e. symbolic and realistic).
In addition, they found that every threat type—even altruistic threat (concerns about the host country’s ability to care for refugees)—was linked with negative views of immigration and refugees.
A third study, a replication of the second study, included a sample of 23 male and 108 female students (average age of 33 years) and concluded that, aside from the prejudice threat, every threat type was associated with unfavorable attitudes toward migrants.
Study 4 used a more representative sample, consisting of 111 women and 140 men (mean age of 50 years). Compared to college students in previous samples, these participants reported perceiving even stronger threats and experiencing more hostility toward refugees. And the results again showed support for the six threat types. Every threat type was correlated with unfavorable views of migration and refugees and with favoring more restrictive control of migration.
Both direct and indirect threats were related to unfavorable attitudes toward refugees, so there may be a bidirectional relationship between people’s attitudes and their perception of threat: The perception of threat gives rise to negative attitudes toward outsiders, and negative attitudes also cause greater threat perception.
Concluding thoughts on refugees and perceptions of threat
So how can we reduce perceptions of different types of threats associated with refugees and immigrants? Here are some suggestions:
To understand the real effects of migration on us and our country, we must rely on data (e.g., economic indicators and crime rates), not ideology.
We need to demystify refugees’ cultural practices so they appear less threatening. In addition, we should remember foreigners’ culture will change, particularly with intergroup contact—just as cultures of European immigrants to America have changed, as history shows. For instance, the culture the original Irish immigrants brought with them has evolved and mixed with the American culture.
Furthermore, it is important to help the public understand immigrants do not have to give up the core of their identity (in terms of cultures and traditions) to be able to follow the law, find jobs, contribute to society, and make friends with people of the host country. Many cultures and religions have survived for hundreds and thousands of years partly because they are flexible enough to adapt and evolve.
Since anger and hostility toward refugees might be related to the perception of injustice as well, we need to address feelings of injustice related to the obligation of accepting refugees and foreigners. For example, “instead of comparing refugee numbers among European countries, refugee numbers in countries bordering conflict areas could be considered as a point of reference.” Another way to reduce anger at refugees is by “identifying responsibilities for social disruption,” and “understanding that European countries’ welfare is rooted in a global economy that sustains poverty in developing countries” (p. 1416).1
1. Landmann, H., Gaschler, R., & Rohmann, A. (2019). What is threatening about refugees? Identifying different types of threat and their association with emotional responses and attitudes towards refugee migration. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49(7), 1401-1420.
2. Esses, V. M., Hamilton, L. K., & Gaucher, D. (2017). The global refugee crisis: Empirical evidence and policy implications for improving public attitudes and facilitating refugee resettlement. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11, 78-123.