“Europeans fear wave of refugees will mean more terrorism, fewer jobs”

On 12 July I participated in European Policy Centre’s meeting on immigration, national identity and integration. Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes at Pew Research Center in the United States presented their latest study titled “Europeans Fear Wave of Refugees Will Mean More Terrorism, Fewer Jobs”. I was invited to comment on the study, and I shared four observations.

My first initial observation was that while the study examined anti-immigration rhetoric and right-wing parties among a selection of EU Member States, these sympathies have been around for many years. What I found particularly worrying is the rather new and growing view that terrorism and radicalisation are linked to today’s refugees; a misperception that has to be countered. I also remarked that although it is interesting to note the comparison between views on immigration and national identity in the US and EU, there is a distinct difference in how we see ourselves. In US individuals may identify themselves as, for example, African-American or Latin-American, while we rarely refer  to ourselves as Hungarian-European or Italian-European.

Secondly, the study showed that the dominant view in Hungary, Poland, Greece and Italy is that refugees take jobs and social benefits from citizens of those countries. I think that in most cases this is based simply on prejudices, but sometimes these fears are real and should be taken seriously. What I mean is that the current situation where we are seeing hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees coming to the EU puts strain on social service providers to accommodate the needs of all vulnerable people – nationals as well as non-nationals. They do not receive sufficient means and resources and as a consequence the needs of different social groups are pitted against each other. Let me give an example; providers of homeless shelters get support from local and national authorities, and in some countries they get more funding per bed for refugees than they get for nationals that are homeless. The shelters therefore end up reallocating their beds for refugees to compensate for their lack of resources for taking care of other homeless people (read more).

My third observation was that the majority (75 percent) of Poles believe that refugees pose a major threat, yet their country has received only a couple of thousand. Conversely,  a minority of Germans (30 percent) are concerned about a possible threat posed by refugees, although they have one of the highest arrival rates. The study concluded that “in no nation does a majority say increasing diversity is positive for their country”. I got me to thinking about another study showing the wide discrepancy between perception of immigration and real facts, and when people are better informed they often change their views; for example, in  Italy, France and the United Kingdom immigration figures are commonly believed to be three times higher than they actually are, and in Germany people believe it is twice as high. This made me ask: what would the answer be if the respondents were first confronted with their prejudice, then presented with correct statistics, followed by the question on what they consider the impact of immigration to be?

Fourthly, when reading about the dominant negative views towards muslims, and that even more people harbour negative feelings towards Roma people, I thought of something a young activist from a Jewish grassroots organisation working with the muslim community said at a meeting I attended: “‘real change comes from fighting the battles of others, not our own causes”.

Discrimination and violence is specific for different groups. This is why our members work on fighting Islamophobia, anti-semitism, afrophobia, homophobia, sexism, ageism, anti-gypsyism etc. At the same time, we need to keep in mind the common denominator: discrimination is systematic and about excluding “the other”.

This being said, the study made me hopeful when I learnt  that attitudes towards migrants and minorities are mainly limited to believers of extreme-right ideology, due to low education levels and older age. Perhaps this means the answer could be as simple as educating the next generation. At the same time, the study mainly highlighted views linked to extreme-right sentiments, and we have observed that xenophobia and racism have made their way into the EU political mainstream, beyond extreme or far-right political parties. We also see a changing European narrative; for example, while we welcome that the EU integration action plan encourages Member States to invest in integration, the communication on legal avenues worryingly proposes contradictory actions, such as short-term permits (although research shows that conflict situations last on average 17 years) and sanctions if migrants move to another EU country, and nor does it address family reunification as a key legal avenue to drive integration. While we welcome the integration action plan it is important that other EU initiatives work with it, and not against. My final point was that the EU is in emergency response mode, and as such policy-making is being rushed to please certain Member States’ anti-immigration views. We call for the process not to be rushed in order to allow time for evidence, evaluation and consultation to be taken into account before decisions are taken.