Can Europe Make It?

Lack of information: the true cost of asylum

The citizens of Europe are entitled to know the costs of helping refugees. If they are given all the facts it may actually reduce opposition to granting asylum.

Sofija Melnikaite
4 November 2015
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A Syrian refugee has her children vaccinated at the UNHCR refugee registration centre near Tripoli. Dominic Chavez/World Bank. Flickr. Some rights reserved.The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe can be best characterised by the unknowns; it is unclear how many asylum seekers will be coming to the EU over the coming years, what the proportion of economic migrants amongst the comers is or how much it costs to grant asylum. 

Trying to comprehend quite distinctive reactions to migrants and refugees in the UK, Central and Eastern Europe, the Integrated Threat Theory (ITT) jumps to mind. It suggests that there are four main types of threats that can result in hostility. These include realistic threats, symbolic threats, intergroup anxiety (such as ridicule), and negative stereotyping (the fear of negative consequences resulting from the interaction with refugees).

Symbolic threats, stemming from perceived group differences in morals, values, and norms, are especially relevant to the current crisis, as most of the refugees are Muslims. This “out-group” holds a different worldview, which may be perceived as threatening to the European cultural identity and could thus subsequently interfere with political, business, and interpersonal relations at the intergroup level. This type of perceived threat is likely to be more prevailent in many less multicultural countries in Europe. Realistic threats, on the other hand, are likely to impact on attitudes in most countries in the EU, most manifestly in those defined by lower economic wellbeing.

Symbolic threats and injustice

A large study examining the prejudice towards the Muslims in the Netherlands demonstrated that half of the Dutch people surveyed held negative feelings towards Muslims, showing that symbolic, but not realistic threats, were predictors of hostility. The ITT explained 78% of prejudice towards the Muslims in the Netherlands.

In the same way as the refugees now arriving in Europe, the Muslims in the Netherlands constituted a minority. Under such circumstances, a group’s subordination to a more powerful group might threaten the minority’s identity as well as be perceived as unjust. Researchers argued that while the sense of being perceived as a low status minority (i.e. as a refugee) may not be experienced as an identity threat per se, in combination with the perception of illegitimacy, it motivates the group to strive for social change.

Considering the situation in Calais over the recent months, it is not surprising that violence and desperation exhibited by many migrants there may stem from their disappointment and perceived state of injustice; having fled civil war many must have expected a very different European welcome.

Livingstone and colleagues examined a different minority group facing identity threat; the Welsh. Although the Welsh language constitutes a core element of the Welsh identity, only 20% of the population is able to speak it. Identity threat is further strengthened by the lack of social and political structures defining Wales in relation to England. Identity threat and perceived illegitimacy predicted a perceived need for both constitutional and unconstitutional identity protection and support for a political status change.

In light of the current refugee situation, the study provides evidence that it is essential to not only prevent inhumane treatment, but also to create an appropriate, respectful infrastructure for people waiting to claim asylum. Both of these measures would reduce the sense of injustice felt by refugees and migrants alike.

Realistic threats – costs and health risks

Some refugees are economic migrants rather than genuine asylum seekers. Consequently, realistic threats, including competition over scarce resources, such as jobs, social benefits, or housing, strengthen negative perceptions of the refugees. It is unsurprising that countries characterised by lower economic wellbeing are more prone to oppose asylum grants. Problematically, none of the EU countries so far have released detailed estimates of how much it will cost to grant asylum.

What is clear, however, is that building an infrastructure that will house thousands of people, ensuring refugees receive appropriate cultural training and start learning the language of countries that grant them asylum is costly. Additionally, there are food supplies, schooling for children, psychological counseling for those traumatised by their experience with war and so on that will add to costs. Government budgets are not limitless – catering for the needs of refugees as well as ensuring its citizens’ safety and security will mean cuts elsewhere.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Central and East European countries are predominantly against taking in large numbers of refugees. Furthermore, with a significant proportion of their own population working abroad, Central and East European governments realistically feel threatened by the arrival of others into the EU.

Unlike symbolic threats, realistic threats cannot be easily explained away; only a well-planned, long-term strategy can persuade people to trust the governments and their plans for dealing with such unexpected financial burden. It seems certain, however, that moving away from a mere conviction that cuts will have a significant impact on citizens’ everyday lives towards a clear comprehension of how much it will actually cost, will reduce opposition to granting asylum. Furthermore, individual government decisions relating to work permits, monetary allowances to foster independence and the like have to be specified to prevent undue speculations and worry.

Realistic threats can also be non-material, but wellbeing related. Even though not many are discussing health-related risks, granting asylum to the refugees may cause an increase in normally preventable diseases, if not taken into account. An interesting series of experiments illustrate the evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms theory, linking evolutionary approach to disease prevention with contemporary
xenophobic attitudes.

A mixture of correlational and experimental studies shows that xenophobic attitudes towards migration from specific target groups can be predicted from a questionnaire measuring perceptions of vulnerability to disease. Furthermore, manipulating participants’ temporary perceptions of vulnerability by requiring them to view a series of pictures conveying the ease with which bacteria are transmitted led to an increase in xenophobic attitudes towards subjectively foreign out-groups as well as lower allocations of government resources to attract immigrants in a hypothetical situation.

In the context of current migration it is worth recalling numerous articles from 2014 warning that Syria struggles to vaccinate its children. This September some of these children will (hopefully) have started at schools in various European cities. Even though the topic is not widely discussed, catering for refugees’ healthcare needs is essential not only for their own sake but also for the permanent residents’. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the series of experiments mentioned previously, people have a tendency to unconsciously associate immigrants from certain areas with diseases. Providing enough information on how refugee healthcare needs will be catered for may, therefore, have a positive effect on attitudes towards granting asylum in general.

Understanding the role of perceived symbolic and realistic threats may shape certain policies aiming to reduce discrimination and promote hospitality. Detailed plans of “refugee-infrastructure” should be made available for the general public. This is not only a good example of accountable politics, but also powerful means for reducing opposition to granting asylum to those in need.

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