Attitudes toward Migrants in a Highly-Impacted Economy: Evidence From the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Jordan

Ala’ Alrababa’h, Andrea Dillon, Scott Williamson, Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, Jeremy Weinstein

Comparative Political Studies, Volume 54, Issue 1 (2021) 

Working paper available here


Most of the evidence on factors influencing attitudes toward migrants has emerged from research in developed countries (mainly Europe and the United States), which finds that: (1) in developed countries there is little evidence that attitudes towards migrants are driven by egocentric economic concerns about labor market competition. These are countries where unemployment is low, welfare states are expansive, and language and skill differences give natives a competitive advantage in the labor market; (2) concerns about the nation’s economic well-being (known as “sociotropic” concerns) in relation to the negative impact on the host country’s economy, welfare system, and public services, shape attitudes toward migrants; (3) attitudes toward migrants are substantially shaped by perceived cultural threat and concerns that migration will change the host country’s dominant culture and identity; and (4) humanitarianism may also influence attitudes.

The authors theorize that in developing countries, egocentric economic concerns about labor market competition and sociotropic concerns about the host country economy are likely to be stronger due to weaker economies, welfare systems, and public services, and more direct competition between migrants and natives in the labor market. At the same time, the authors posit that cultural concerns in developing countries are likely to be weaker (due to the increased likelihood of shared cultural and religious identities) and humanitarianism is likely to be weaker (since developing countries have a much larger refugee burden).

To address this geographical limitation, the authors conducted a large-scale representative survey of public attitudes toward migration in Jordan, one of the countries most affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. The survey was conducted in February 2018 and covered 1,500 Jordanians in regions with both high and low concentrations of Syrian refugees. The survey measured attitudes about the perceived impact of Syrian refugees on the country, hostility toward the refugee population, and support for anti-refugee policies, as well as respondent characteristics that have been identified as potential drivers of attitudes toward migrants in other contexts. It also asked respondents to choose between randomized profiles of refugees with different attributes, to enable an analysis of the relative importance of economic, cultural, and humanitarian considerations in shaping attitudes toward migrants.

Main findings:

  • Economic concerns do not drive Jordanians’ attitudes toward Syrian refugees. Jordanians who have been more economically impacted by the crisis, either personally or in their communities, are no more likely to hold negative attitudes.
  • Humanitarian and cultural factors drive Jordanians attitudes towards Syrian refugees. Jordanians who are more exposed to refugees’ challenging living conditions and who are less sensitive to cultural threat demonstrate more positive attitudes toward refugees.
  • Both humanitarian vulnerability and cultural similarity outweigh egocentric and sociotropic economic threats in determining which Syrian refugees Jordanians prefer to host.

These results undermine arguments that egocentric and sociotropic economic concerns shape attitudes towards refugees. Rather, the results indicate the potential for humanitarian concerns to sustain public support for hosting refugees over extended periods of time, even in challenging economic circumstances. The authors note that most Syrian refugees in Jordan share cultural similarities with their hosts, and in contexts where there are cultural differences, the analysis suggests that hosts may be less likely to let humanitarian motives override the perceived economic costs of hosting large numbers of refugees. This paper, therefore, reinforces the consensus on the importance of cultural factors in shaping attitudes toward migration.