Sustaining Solidarity Toward Refugees Requires Attention to Public Anxieties, Not Just Positive Narratives
WASHINGTON — Refugees and asylum seekers are alternately depicted as heroes or security threats, victims or exceptional workers, exemplary neighbors or opportunists—sometimes all at once. Yet despite these polarized narratives, most public sentiment falls somewhere in between: People can experience pride in their country’s humanitarian response and compassion for refugees alongside anxiety over changing cultural norms or competition for jobs and resources.
Shifting tides of public opinion during a displacement crisis can play a role in nudging policy in more open or restrictive directions—although the relationship between the two is not always clear-cut, as a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report out today makes clear. Colombia in 2021 legalized 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans, and more recently the European Union decided to extend legal status to millions of Ukrainians fleeing their war-torn country. At the other end, the United States leveraged concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic to expel asylum seekers and others arriving at its southern border, and thousands of Mozambicans fleeing violence have been forcibly returned from Tanzania.
Amid a fractured policy response to record displacement and public opinion that can shift from initial warm welcome to compassion fatigue and xenophobia, big questions remain around how emerging examples of solidarity toward refugees and asylum seekers can be harnessed and defuse anxieties before they become dominant fears.
In From Fear to Solidarity: The Difficulty in Shifting Public Narratives about Refugees, analyst Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan examines the narratives that emerge in communities welcoming forced migrants and two types of interventions that seek to address negative narratives: information campaigns and “contact-building” initiatives that aim to build connections between refugees and host communities.
“While public opinion is often perceived as rigid and durable, it ebbs and flows constantly as certain concerns dominate and others recede,” writes Banulescu-Bogdan, who is associate director of MPI’s international program. “Instead of investing scarce resources in trying to eradicate all fear and anxiety about refugees and asylum seekers, it may be more productive to better understand the conditions under which positive and negative sentiment flourish.”
Compassion for a specific group—for example Ukrainians in Poland, Afghans in the United States or Venezuelans in Colombia—may not translate to support for forced migrants overall. The report finds there is an increasing dichotomy between refugees perceived as “deserving” and “genuine” and those seen as abusing a country’s humanitarian protection system to seek better economic opportunities (for example Central American asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border).
Public support also tends to wane over time. “Waves of generosity and solidarity after a crisis can be short-lived and hard to sustain,” Banulescu-Bogdan writes. “In most refugee-hosting countries, there is a point at which generosity fatigue sets in, usually as crises become intractable and resources dwindle, which allows tensions to flare.”
The report concludes that efforts to address negative narratives head-on may not work. Information campaigns that seek to change people’s minds about refugees may fall flat or even backfire, given beliefs are inextricably tied to social cues and identity, and thus are resistant to change. Facilitating positive contact between refugees and other members of society may be a more promising approach to reduce prejudice and foster cooperation and trust, though the quality and context of the contact are critical determinants of success.
Rather than focusing first on shifting narratives, the report recommends governments consider recalibrating a range of policies (housing, employment and infrastructure investments) to address the underlying sources of tension and promote solidarity in receiving communities. Among the recommended strategies:
- Identifying pockets of intense anxiety, and paying attention to what makes concerns more salient. Efforts to curb xenophobic rhetoric, for example, will not be effective without a deep understanding of what inflames these fears in the first place.
- Moving away from a narrow focus on trying to change people’s attitudes. Addressing public anxiety around migration requires striking at the root of people’s concerns—such as job loss or overburdened infrastructure—rather than curbing how these fears are expressed. Leaders must find ways to empower those left behind and signal that investments are for entire communities.
- Demonstrating that there is a plan for newcomers’ long-term integration, not just short-term reception. Governments need to make a case for investing in long-term integration, as anxieties around whether low-skilled refugees will be able to become gainfully employed, or whether religiously different newcomers are living “apart,” loom large in people’s minds.
Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/shifting-public-narratives-refugees.
It is part of the three-year Beyond Territorial Asylum: Making Protection Work in a Bordered World initiative undertaken by MPI and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. The initiative seeks to address challenges to asylum systems that are under immense pressure and seize the opportunity to explore and test new ways to facilitate access to protection that better support equity and result in more flexible, sustainable infrastructure.