Refugees welcome? Personal contact makes the difference

Attitudes towards refugee integration depend on having personal contact with them. This is the main finding from a conducted by Dr. Lena Knappert, assistant professor at VU Amsterdam and others.

11/26/2020 | 10:15 AM

The study, conducted in collaboration with researchers from VU Amsterdam, Tilburg University, the University of Amsterdam and Kieskompas, shows that not only political ideology but also personal contact shape the attitude of citizens and politicians towards refugees. The researchers analyzed stereotypes towards refugees and integration attitudes held by citizens and politicians in the Netherlands. The study shows that personal contact reduces negative attitudes. Knappert: “Our research makes us hopeful that fostering personal contact between refugees and residents can help ease societal tensions.”

The role of political orientation

Views about the reception and integration of refugees are strongly associated with one’s political orientation. According to Knappert, “the political left and right often hold opposite ideas and perspectives on how to organize society, which also affects their responses to refugees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that residents with a more right-wing orientation hold more negative stereotypes about refugees, which translate in more negative attitudes towards refugee integration.” But the study also shows that stereotypes and attitudes towards refugee integration become more positive when residents reported to have had actual contact with refugees, and this was especially true for citizens with a more right-wing orientation. When asked why the effect of contact was more pronounced for residents with right-wing orientation, Knappert replies: “A likely explanation is that when initial attitudes are more negative, there is more room for positive change.” 

Politicians hold more favorable attitudes than citizens

Welcoming refugees has been a polarizing societal and political issue for years. Since the emergence of right-wing populism, the issue of immigration has dominated the public debate, and is likely to remain central in the campaigns leading to the upcoming general elections in March. Knappert and her colleagues believe that their study can help facilitate solutions that address the growing societal polarization, while helping those who have to flee war or persecution. 

In addition, they hope to raise awareness among politicians for their role in constructing the image of refugees among citizens. “A surprising finding was that politicians overall tend to hold more favorable attitudes towards refugee integration. Given that politicians determine integration policy and shape the image of refugees among their followers, this is a very important outcome that emphasizes politicians’ role in shaping citizens’ attitudes towards refugee integration.” When asked what she thinks should be the first action to undertake based on these findings, Knappert answers: “Fostering contact between refugees and politicians. Because when politicians’ attitudes towards refugees are not merely based on stereotypes but on actually knowing refugees, they can help spreading a more realistic, and often far less negative, image of refugees among citizens.”

You can find the paper here.